Inside The Chart: Amped Up

Oct. 27, 2016

Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart

Georgia Tech wanted a jolt for its pass rush after finishing 120th in the nation last year in sacks per game.

Fittingly, they’ve gotten one from an Amp.

Coaches and public-address announcers may still refer to him as Antonio Simmons, but since childhood Simmons has preferred “Amp,” a takeoff of his father’s initials, Antonio Maurice Pennamon (Antonio is named after him).

As they prepare to face Duke at Bobby Dodd Stadium Saturday (Noon ET, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network), Simmons, a junior defensive end, has emerged as the Yellow Jackets’ most reliable and persistent quarterback hunter. Despite splitting snaps with run stopper Rod Rook-Chungong, Simmons leads Georgia Tech in both tackles for loss (5.0) and quarterback hurries (9).

Simmons says he’s worked hard to become a more refined pass rusher.

“Working on my technique, my hands and just [being] more active with my hands this year. I can get a better jump. My `get-off’ is much better this year,” Simmons explained after practice Monday.

And there’s reason to believe he’ll have more chances to crash the pocket in coming weeks. Among the Yellow Jackets’ future opponents:

• Duke, led by quarterback Daniel Jones, ranks third in the nation among freshmen in pass attempts (233).
• North Carolina ranks third in the ACC in passing offense (301.0 ypg).
• Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans ranks in the top 10 nationally in passer efficiency (167.2).
• Kurt Benkert, Virginia’s starting quarterback, ranks 11th in the nation in pass attempts per game (39.3).

All told, the Yellow Jackets’ next four ACC opponents have thrown it on 48.5% of their offensive downs, compared to 41.6% for their first four opponents.

That’s roughly seven more pass attempts per game — and theoretically, seven more chances for Simmons to wreak havoc.

Not surprisingly, the mention of that lit a spark under “Amp.”

“Whenever I get an opportunity to rush the passer I try to take full advantage of it. That’s my specialty,” he said.

That attacking mentality, though, has sometimes led to problems. Head coach Paul Johnson says he wants Simmons to become a more dependable run stopper, which has hindered his every-down ability. He also wants him to become a more disciplined lineman.

“Sometimes when you freelance, you get other guys in trouble. As he plays more responsibly, his reps will continue because he’s been very productive,” Johnson said recently.

The nectar for any defensive end, though, will always be the sack. For as many QB hurries as he’s produced, Simmons only has one sack, a wrap-up against Boston College in the season opener. He also knows Georgia Tech needs to force more surefire passing downs, which will give him more opportunities to get in the backfield. The Yellow Jackets currently rank 126th in the nation in third-down defense (49.5%).

Simmons says the key to improving Tech’s ailing third-down defense is by getting better on first and second downs.

“We’ve just got to start fast and keep a high tempo and adjust to the game better,” he said.

With a stretch of pass-heavier teams coming up, Simmons should have more chances to cement his spot as Georgia Tech’s top pass-rushing threat. It also won’t hurt that Duke has allowed 17 sacks this year, making them the most sack-prone team the Yellow Jackets have faced. Simmons’ speed may also come in handy supporting and snuffing out Duke’s screen passes, which the Blue Devils use often (Simmons recorded a career-high six tackles against a Pitt offense that attacked the perimeter with speed sweeps).

After returning home to Jacksonville this weekend to visit with family and play with his younger brothers, Simmons says he came back to The Flats rested and re-charged.

Amped, in other words, for the ACC race ahead.

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