Dec. 21, 2016
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Antonio Simmons is not the only Georgia Tech player heading home, yet he’s one of a few who’ll be home for three holidays over the next 10 days — Christmas, the TaxSlayer Bowl and New Year’s Day.
Yes, you could say the bowl game counts as a holiday for Simmons (as well as teammates Marcus Allen, Victor Alexander, Step Durham and Lamont Simmons) because it will be in his hometown of Jacksonville.
That’s a big deal for the junior defensive end, who leads the Yellow Jackets with 12 quarterback hurries and ranks second on the squad with five tackles for loss this season in a reserve role. He’s not sure how many of his former University Christian School teammates and friends are going to be at the Dec. 31 game at EverBank Field other than it’s going to be many.
It’ll be like a second Christmas in a way.
“I know a lot. I know my friends, old teammates and head coach [David Peland] . . . my family tells me they’re coming to the game,” Simmons said with a big smile. “I’m really excited to play in front of my family and friends that haven’t seen me play yet.”
The Yellow Jackets (8-4) left The Flats on Wednesday after a morning workout and they’ll return to Atlanta on Monday, Dec. 26. They’ll hold one last practice in Atlanta on Tuesday, Dec. 27 before traveling to Jacksonville in advance of the Dec. 31 bowl game against Kentucky (7-5).
Simmons was somewhat late to the recruiting scene coming out of high school, as he put together a monster senior year with 50 tackles and 29 sacks.
He’s been a little on the light side at 6-3 and now 243 pounds after arriving at Tech looking more like a tall linebacker than a rush end. Simmons has grown into his role and stands third among defensive linemen in tackles with 31, trailing only starters Patrick Gamble (47) and KeShun Freeman (36), despite the fact that he hasn’t started a game himself.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof said Simmons has begun to combine better technique with his inherent athleticism to make a difference under the tutelage of defensive line coach Mike Pelton. He generally spells Freeman and fellow end Rod Rook-Chungong.
“I think he’s got a big upside and he’s improved,” Roof said. “He’s done some really good things, made some big plays for us and, at the same time, has a lot of room for growth and improvement . . . He’s a guy that works and takes pride in his performance.”
A-backs coach Lamar Owens had a lot to do with Simmons choosing Tech, as Owens spends considerable time recruiting north Florida. Much as he’s refining himself as a football player, Simmons is fine-tuning the way he talks about others. He’s still quite refreshing in that he’s a bit more unedited than some of his teammates.
“Coach O is pretty cool. He’s like one of us . . . He’s more chill than most of the coaches,” he said. “He’s young and most of the other coaches are kind of old, so it’s more like a homeboy vibe with coach O. He’s like one of us. He can talk about anything. My mom and grandma loved coach O.”
For as much as Simmons has enjoyed this season, he’s looking forward to 2017 as well. He and Freeman will be the old heads among defensive linemen and he’s already embracing the notion of growing into a leadership role.
“(2016 has) been a real fun year. Producing like I wanted, it’s been a fun year with my teammates. Becoming a leader on the defensive line . . . it’s very special because, at the end of the day, we’re still a young team.
“This is most everybody’s first year actually playing on the offense and defense. We’re just trying to get the ninth win so we know what to expect next year. I’m ready for it. I’m ready for [the seniors] to pass the torch after the game.”
Following the TaxSlayer Bowl, Simmons and his fellow teammates from Jacksonville plan to remain in north Florida while the rest of the Jackets head home for the New Year. But that only scratches the surface of his plans for the offseason.
Simmons wants to add a few pounds while also becoming more lean and quicker.
“I’m trying to drop my body fat to 10 percent. I’m at like 12 now,” he said. “[I want to] try to play at 250 and get faster. I’m trying to be an every-down guy.”