Triturate: LB Isaiah Simmons, Clemson

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A 6’3″ 230 pound athletic freak out of Clemson, Isaiah Simmons is gaining steam in NFL Draft circles early this season. With the NFL looking for leaner, more athletic linebackers who can cover tight ends in the league, Simmons appears to be the man who can fill this need for a team in the league. He owns length, speed, and power, and is a prime prospect.

I have been long outspoken against Clemson defenders. So far in my career, I have observed the low success rate of ex-Clemson defenders in the league. I have blamed the defensive scheme, run by defensive coordinator Brent Venables, as being too clever at disguising weaknesses and utilizing strengths for NFL teams to get a good feel at the prospects. While this works to win games in college, it doesn’t help players transition over to the next level.

Welcome to my new series, Triturate. If you didn’t know, the word “triturate” means “to crumble,” “grind,” or “crush.” I fully intend to grind through tape of all of the top prospects and see if they can withstand the power of the triturate.

Isaiah Simmons Career Brief

Isaiah Simmons saw success at the high school level playing safety and wide receiver at Olathe North High in Olathe, Kansas. A three star prospect, Simmons was ranked the third best player in the state of Kansas, according to 247 Composite. Clemson heavily recruited him to South Carolina, but also saw a lot of attention from Michigan, Nebraska and Minnesota. However, Venables, his primary recruiter, and defensive backs coach Mike Reed won over and Simmons became a Tiger.

His 247 profile notes that he was “a headhunter” and “will deliver big hits on wide receivers and running backs.” They also liked his ball skills on defense. Simmons made it to the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, and performed well. As a wide receiver, the scouting report simply said that “every time he touches the ball it’s a touchdown” and that his “athleticism pops immediately on tape.”

Since coming to Clemson, Simmons has produced 134 tackles in his first 29 games, as well as 12 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. He made the switch to linebacker this offseason, and he is reaping the rewards, already on pace to smash his personal high for tackles-for-loss in a season as well as tackles and sacks.

Venables thinks that Simmons is “one of the better players” in the country. “What I loved [at the end of the North Carolina game], he’s breaking it down there right at the end [sic] he’s talking about all the mistakes that we’ve got to fix.”

Enter the Film Room

Here is where things start to get real. Simmons is regarded as a complete player. The Draft Network’s senior analyst Kyle Crabbs thinks that “there’s very little he can’t do.” Well, as many coaches say, tape never lies. Let’s allow the crucible to determine that now, shall we?

Simmons in pass coverage

So one thing that we know about Isaiah Simmons is that he played safety all through high school and his first three years (counting his redshirt season) at safety. Remember, he played wide receiver in high school as well, so he owns a basic understanding of what the receivers are trying to accomplish.

Clemson likes to run a ton of zone coverage. Their scheme reminds me a lot of what Pete Carroll has run with the Seattle Seahawks successfully for years. This requires smart, disciplined defensive backs to read plays effectively and stay in their zones.

On this play, last year against Duke, Simmons shows all of those traits. First, he lines up in the slot while Clemson is showing Duke quarterback Daniel Jones (now the New York Giants starting quarterback) man coverage. He drops into his zone, which is the right flat. When Jones moves out of the pocket extending the play, he has TJ Rahming coming across the formation. Simmons recognizes his presence immediately, and takes away the easy throw from Jones. Once the quarterback commits to running for the first down, Simmons breaks off of the receiver and makes the tackle.

Remember, it’s third and seven. An extremely heads up play by Simmons. If you think about it, he took two throws away from the quarterback, forced him to run and stopped him short of the first down on the same play. Absolutely incredible.

Shortcomings in pass coverage

I’ve heard it said many times by many different people. When God blesses you with such gifts, people use them regularly. In this case, Simmons is blessed by God with pure athletic ability. Sometimes, he relies too much on it to make a play.

In this particular play, he is in zone coverage. Simmons plays his zone correctly, dropping back a few yards. However, the tight end was running the hot route in a sail concept. The sail is when the receiver outside clears out the zone by running a go to the end zone, while the tight end runs a corner route underneath the receiver.

Daniel Jones burns Simmons and his teammate on this play. Sometimes, Simmons relies on his athleticism and let’s people get behind him. With a little bit more instinct in zone coverage, Simmons would have dropped deeper into the zone and delayed the throw from Jones which may have been enough to blow up the play. Instead, he thought he could make the play from his assigned zone and got smoked for it.

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Isaiah Simmons in space

Clemson has a tendency to leave Simmons in space. The trust that the coaches have in the young man is outstanding, but when you see the tape, you understand why. One of the key components to being an outstanding defender in the NFL is by being effective in space. Oftentimes, on the outside, a running back shakes free and is left one-on-one with a defender. This requires players to stay disciplined, in line with the runner, and be strong as a tackler.

Here, we get a good feel for what Simmons can do when left in space. If you notice, Simmons is actually not assigned to this part of the field. He’s looking into the backfield, reading the quarterback while sneaking toward the line. When the quarterback rolls out of the pocket, he recognizes that the check down is already in the flat.

If you look at the video above a few times, watch what Simmons does. He completely turns his hips and accelerates toward the flat. Then, he takes a perfect angle and delivers a good, clean tackle. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a smart, heady player dominating in action. Not only do we see from this example Simmons excellent space defense, but we see the range he has on any given play. He’s an extraordinary prospect, and I am very much pleased with this aspect to his game.

Closing Speed

Because of his safety/wide receiver background, Simmons understands the importance of closing speed. This is an important aspect for a linebacker or defensive back to have: the ability to come up quickly from any point on the field to make the play. This requires athleticism, play recognition and quickness.

Simmons is a high effort hustle player. I will give him that. On the play above, as noted, Simmons is aligned as the deep safety. He see’s something pre-snap that gives away what the offense is about to do, so he creeps up about 12 yards from the line of scrimmage. If you notice, #12 SS K’Von Wallace doesn’t recognize the run play as quickly as Simmons does. When he sees that the running back has a hole to the outside in his lane, Wallace moves back upfield and sets and angle to try and hit him around the first down marker.

Lucky for Wallace, Simmons already recognized the play. He comes straight down and limits the run to a mere couple of yards. Simmons is a straight mistake eraser, because of his elite closing speed, play recognition skill and incredible athleticism.

Pass rush ability

Isaiah Simmons has been effective as a late blitz piece almost his entire career. Because of his impressive tackling ability, his speed and play recognition, it makes sense to why Clemson would use him in this role. If a running back or a tight end tries to block him, he usually obliterates them.

Timing is also a key component to blitzing as a linebacker. Simmons times his blitzes extraordinarily well, as pointed out by NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeramiah. This plays into the closing speed that we discussed a little bit before.

3/4 pass rushing potential

While we see that he can work against smaller blockers, we need to see if he can work against offensive tackles. Unfortunately for us, we really don’t have too many reps where we get to see that. This may be one of those things that Brent Venables is hiding as it is not a strength to Simmons game.

That being said, I captured this rep of his in the game against Duke. Observe this carefully. Simmons is coming off of the edge and ends up being double teamed by the Duke offensive line. The right guard takes him, and Simmons moves him out of the way before being picked up by the center. Daniel Jones senses that the play isn’t going well over there, so he tucks and runs to get as much of a positive gain as possible.

Now, granted, the guard is in the process of sliding. Jones adjusted the line pre-snap to shift to the right, to better protect him against the incoming blitz. He is not set when Simmons shoves him out of the way, nor is he in any position to plant. However, have you ever tried to move a 300+ pound brick out of the way? Yeah, it didn’t work, did it?

Looking at the Production

Either way you look at it, Simmons has not only produced on the college level, but his tape shows a ton of elite traits that the NFL desperately needs right now. Honestly? I think that Simmons is a top-ten talent in any season where the quarterback class isn’t so deep. If three or four quarterbacks are drafted in the first round, it could potentially push top-ten talents out of those spots.

The Verdict: PASSED

Simmons is a gamer. He is the real deal. I don’t know if we have ever seen a skillset as diverse as Simmons. When you think of defensive diversity, you think of former Michigan Wolverine Jabrill Peppers. However, Peppers didn’t possess the speed or the size that Simmons has.

Simmons could be the start of a new prototype. Players could end up modeling their game after Simmons. He can be the x-factor on a defense that takes away a tight end, shuts down a running game or is simply the mistake eraser on a top-ten defense. I look forward to seeing Simmons perform the rest of the season, and I can’t wait to see him go pro.

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