CHAPEL HILL – It’s probably safe to say Malik Simmons’ senior season did not get off to the start he imagined.
Let’s back up for a second. Simmons, the defensive back from Lehigh Acres, Fla., spent two years playing the RAM position – a hybrid linebacker/safety in the old 4-2-5 scheme. Playing out of position, Simmons did not excel as the Ram, even though he played in 25 games, starting 15.
North Carolina hired Gene Chizik to take over the defense in January and he brought with him a more traditional 4-3 scheme. With the new system, Simmons was moved back to his natural position of cornerback, where he played as a freshman, appearing in 11 games. He earned a starting spot in spring ball and was set to start at cornerback after beating out previous starter Brian Walker.
Then, right before the start of this season Simmons was suspended for the first two games. Simmons was charged with possession of marijuana and resisting arrest. So while UNC opened the 2015 season on national television against South Carolina, Simmons watched from home. When the Heels got their first win this year against North Carolina A&T, Simmons was wearing street clothes, checking out the game inside of Kenan Stadium instead of joining his teammates on the sidelines.
Once he was able to participate in games, Simmons was buried on the depth chart at corner and getting snaps on special teams, a far cry from where he expected to be once the season kicked off. However, patience paid off for Simmons. Ironically enough, it was because of a suspension to another player that Simmons got his chance to shine again. Starting in place of M.J. Stewart last week against Wake Forest, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora mentioned how comfortable the team was with Simmons in the lineup because he had so much experience.
If Wake Forest was the unofficial beginning to the season for Simmons, the Virginia game was his coming out party. Simmons picked off two passes in the fourth quarter against the Wahoos. His first interception, a one handed grab, was first of his career. After two pass interference penalties against him, Simmons added one more right before the end of the game.
With so many players being kicked off college teams across the country, Simmons easily could have been one of them. After losing his starting job, Simmons also could have sulked, but he did the opposite and it paid off for him against Virginia.
“It feels great,” Simmons said about his return.
In his first few games back, Simmons admitted it felt like teams (especially Wake Forest) were picking on him. Other coaches watch film and they knew Simmons was just getting back into the swing of things.
Virginia was no different. After his first interception, Simmons had two pass interference calls against him.
“The first one, I don’t agree with,” he said with a smile, “The second one, I’ll give them that one because I didn’t get my head around.”
But like a true cornerback, it’s all about having a short memory and moving onto the next play. When UVA looked his way again, Simmons made them pay, picking off a pass on the UVA sidelines.
With a veteran who has been through so much as a Tar Heel and so much personally off the field, to see him bounce back and contribute is like him coming full circle.
“He’s been through adversity, he had his suspension, he’s been through it all,” linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “It just shows so much about his character.”
Since he has been back in the mix, Simmons admitted he has been able to play with more confidence, which allows him to be more aggressive in coverage. He had a pass breakup against Virginia, which came before his first interception. Like most defensive backs do, Simmons got up and made a gesture, crossing his arms to signal incomplete, also making the opposing quarterback aware that it’s not safe to throw to his side. That kind of confidence and ability is what got Simmons on the field in the first place. And despite his recent troubles, it’s the kind of play that the coaches notice.
“Malik has been thrown into the starting lineup the last two weeks,” Fedora said. “He played his butt off last week and then you saw what he did tonight. He played really well and he’s done a nice job stepping into that role.”
Now it might be harder for Stewart to get that job back. Simmons has found some success on the field and he is playing with that hunger again, that hunger that came with almost having the game taken away from him for good.