After position switch, BC safety Justin Simmons was sharp at corner
It was a personal crucible that defined Justin Simmons’s season — his career, perhaps — and helped him emerge as a versatile and invaluable component of Boston College’s secondary.
A year ago, defensive coordinator Don Brown was faced with the prospect of having to reshuffle his secondary in midstream before an important Atlantic Coast Conference game at Wake Forest.
Starting cornerback Bryce Jones had been dismissed from the team, and his replacement, sophomore John Johnson, had broken a wrist in the previous game, versus Clemson.
“We lost two corners in a blink and had to redesign the whole secondary in a week,’’ Brown recalled Tuesday after the Eagles wrapped up their second day of camp early because of inclement weather. “All of a sudden, Justin went from free safety to the corner.”
Initially, it was a difficult adjustment for Simmons, who became a stalwart in BC’s secondary after starting all 13 games last season, seven at free safety and the last six at right corner. He led the Eagles with 76 tackles (63 solo) and a pair of interceptions.
“It was probably one of the toughest weeks of my college career so far, just jumping into it,’’ Simmons said. “But it helped with my versatility and learning the defense even moreso than I already thought I knew it.
“So now that helps me even more with the incoming freshmen at corner, safety, or even at the nickel, playing both spots. I am able to help coach and teach them and give them the ins and outs that helped me learn it quicker and faster.’’
Simmons proved a quick study at the position switch, coming up with a game-clinching interception that stymied Wake Forest’s fourth-quarter rally from a 23-3 deficit and helped the Eagles cement a 23-17 victory.
“It was eye-opening,’’ Brown said. “Here we are in the fourth quarter, game’s on the line, and the guy makes the biggest play of the game and seals the deal for us.
“We did a lot of good things in that game, but the reality of it was that it was coming down to the fourth quarter and we needed a guy to step up and make a play and he did it.’’
Simmons also gained a newfound respect for the job done by cornerback Manny Asprilla, now an NFL free agent toiling in the Chargers preseason camp, and Johnson, before his injury.
“A huge appreciation,’’ Simmons said. “I told Manny and John, when he got hurt, anytime I’ve yelled at you guys for stuff that’s happened, I apologize, because it’s a lot tougher than I thought. At safety, I’m expecting a lot of help, and I was getting on them when it didn’t come.
“But it’s a lot [tougher] and I’m so grateful to the coaches for helping me out through that process.’’
The residual for Brown is that he now has in Simmons a senior capable of playing all four positions in the back end, with the ability to communicate the nuances of each position to the underclassmen.
“Shoot, he’s one of those guys who’s talking to me all the time, like he’s thinking along with me, conceptually,’’ Brown marveled. “Some guys never get there. And rarely guys will get to the level that he’s gotten.
“I mean, when you can play both corner and safety and learn it in one week and now we’re able to take advantage of all those skills, not only from a coverage standpoint, but a safety-range standpoint, it just makes you better.’’
Brown hopes Simmons’s versatility and recognition will make the secondary and BC’s overall defense that much better.
“The sky’s going to be the limit for him,’’ Brown said. “He’s big enough to cover the big receivers and he’s athletic enough to be out at the corner position. But he’s also smart enough and can handle all the checks and stuff that come at him. He can play safety, too.
“So he can play all four defensive back positions, and there aren’t many of those cats. He’s a rare breed.’’
One who has survived the crucible of a midseason position switch and come out “a pretty special dude,’’ in Brown’s words.
Asked about his expanded leadership role, Simmons said, “I’m really just leaning on my teammates to help me in that aspect. I know that I’m taking an even bigger leadership role this season, but with guys like John Johnson, [linebacker] Steve Daniels, and [lineman] Connor Wujciak and all the coaches I have on defense, I know I can succeed being that leader on the field.
“I have such a great support system because of the guys who are really laying it on the line for each other.’’