East Lansing – Mike Tressel was impressed when he read how linebacker Antjuan Simmons responded to a question last week about the direction of the Michigan State program.
When the Spartans defensive coordinator saw the video, that’s when he really took a step back.
“It’s one thing when you read (the quote) and he said the right things and that’s really good,” Tressel said. “But when you hear it and how quick his reaction was and how passionate he was and no hesitation, yeah, that was really impressive to me.”
The comment came in the wake of Michigan State’s 44-10 loss to Michigan last week, the fifth straight for the Spartans (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten) and the fourth blowout in a row against the top teams in the conference.
Simmons, the junior outside linebacker who has moved to the middle the last two games to take over for the suspended Joe Bachie, was asked if he thinks the program is headed in the right direction.
The response came quickly.
“Of course I do, of course I do, of course I do,” Simmons said emphatically. “I wouldn’t have came here if I didn’t believe in Coach D or the coaching staff or my teammates. I still believe in this program, I still love every single person within this program.”
It was the sort of thing that can sometimes be in short supply when a once-promising season has crumbled to the point where Michigan State’s is at this point — needing wins against Rutgers and Maryland in the final two weeks to simply become bowl eligible.
But Simmons is proving he’s no ordinary player, on and off the field. With one season left, the Ann Arbor native is looking more and more like a captain every day.
“Yeah, I think so,” Tressel said. “I don’t get a vote, but I would imagine based on what the other guys are looking at and the way he’s handling himself that could very well be the case.
“He leads by example and he does have some vocal leadership. The guys like him. He’s a great guy. You want to like that guy. He does have the whole package.”
Even as the Michigan State defense has watched the points pile up and the opposition make big play after big play, Simmons has been a bright spot.
After starting the first eight games at the STAR linebacker spot, the weak-side backer in Michigan State’s system, the 6-foot, 216-pound Simmons has moved to the middle the last two games, collecting seven tackles last week against the Wolverines, including two for loss. His 14 tackles for loss rank third in the Big Ten and Simmons is tied for the team lead with 72 tackles.
But it’s his shift to the middle that has been most impressive.
“He's a leader. He understands it,” said Tressel, who also coaches the Spartans linebackers. “You also try to find a MIKE backer that you know can fix things, because it’s not always gonna be perfect where (defensive tackle) Mike Panasiuk is in his gap every time or Raequan (Williams) is in his gap every time. So, the MIKE backer has to fix it. We felt like he’s a guy that can make plays, but it’s a combination of that, the leadership, the understanding, that whole package together
“He a positive influence, there’s no doubt about it. He has confidence. With Joe out he’s become a little bit more of a vocal leader and we need that. We need that right now.”
Whether Simmons continues as the middle linebacker next year is still up in the air.
Last week, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio talked about sophomore Noah Harvey as the likely starter next season, but he’s been playing primarily on the outside. Redshirt freshman Edward Warinner is also an option, but being able to fall back on Simmons is a nice safety net.
“I don’t know exactly,” Tressel said of next season’s depth chart. “Right now we’re focused on how to get the best football out of our guys Saturday."
It’s Simmons’ focus, too.
“We just gotta go get a win this weekend,” Simmons said, “and then worry about next weekend when it comes out. But it’s big, sending these seniors off on a bowl game, you know, send them out the right way. So that's the main thing right now.”
Then the focus turns to the offseason, when Simmons says the real work begins in an effort to put this season in the past and start turning things around.
“(This season) was tough because it didn't turn out the way we wanted it to,” Simmons said. “But it’s how you look at it. You can hang your head and stuff, but in reality, you got to take it. We didn't do good this year. We weren't good this year.
“So we are going into the offseason and we gotta be hungry. We gotta fight. Every day in offseason we’ve got to practice and go through our workouts as if we're going to win that day.”