Simmons Fall Camp Pushes Him Past Veteran Lineman On Depth Chart

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    Photo By Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics

    Tennessee defensive tackle Elijah Simmons has had quite the path from Vol football commit to redshirt-sophomore who’s set to make his first collegiate start in two days when the Josh Heupel era gets underway at Neyland Stadium.

    It’s a path that’s seen Simmons earn only limited reps, playing very little in his freshman season before getting some second teamwork last season due to injuries.

    On the road to starting for his home state team, Simmons endeared himself to Tennessee fans because of Jeremy Pruitt’s story about his lovely singing voice, a video from high school where— the now 6-foot-2, 350-pound defensive tackle— dunks a basketball to an awesome and intimidating picture of him in high school.

    (Photo via @BIGE91234 on Twitter)

    While the media, including myself, expected Simmons to play a bigger role this fall, the redshirt-sophomore showing up on the first team of Tennnessee’s opening depth chart was one of the biggest surprises.

    On that depth chart Simmons— who didn’t crack the top 500 as a high school recruit— is above Aubrey Soloman, a former five-star with more college snaps under his belt and intriguing Kansas transfer Da’Jon Terry.

    The most surprising thing about Simmons’ emergence to the top of the depth chart is how critical defensive line coach Rodnery Garner was of Simmons just over two weeks ago.

    “Elijah is working,” Garner said. “Obviously, he has to get himself in much, much better shape. He’s got to have more self accountability. I do think Elijah does have the skill set to be successful in this league. He’s got to be more accountable to Elijah first. If you search our league, probably if you look at the rosters of the guys who are playing there probably aren’t a lot of 350 pound d-tackles in the SEC. The Mount Cody days are over with. He’s got to get himself in a position where he can help this team because he definitely has some talent.”

    So how has Simmons gone from the doghouse to the first 11 in two weeks? For one, there must have been more motivation than disappointment in Garner’s message to Simmons. There’s not a realistic scenario where Simmons went from barely in the mix to play to starting in that short of time. 

    Simmons’ teammates backed that up with what they said Monday following the news that Simmons would be starting.

    “He had a great fall camp,” defensive lineman Matthew Butler said. “Obviously, he’s one of the biggest dudes I’ve ever met in my entire life. Strong, powerful and he’s really translating that to his game. I can see it in the weight room. I lift with him every day trying to match his numbers and it’s definitely translated to the field.”

    Even without Garner’s motivation or criticism, this is a major jump for Simmons. What allowed the former Pearl-Cohn standout to go from 10 career tackles to starting? His teammates say it’s his consistency.

    “Elijah Simmons man, he’s a load up front,” offensive guard Jerome Carvin said. “Big dude. He’s very hard to block. When he gets it rolling, he’s very good. He’s really been consistent. I would say the difference from last year to now, he’s very consistent. He knows what he’s doing, playing full speed, and I think he’s going to be great.”

    Butler will start next to Simmons on the interior of Tennessee’s defense Thursday night. The duo is spearheading a defensive line group that has more depth and talent than any other unit on the defense. Under the veteran Garner, strong play up front would be crucial in Tennessee’s defense’s ability to overachieve this fall.

    Simmons was a fan favorite before he even enrolled in classes in Knoxville, and if he and his teammates can surprise this season, his allure will only grow.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.