Simmons Takes on New Role

As the Blue Raiders gear up for the beginning of Spring practice, there are several new faces on the field. With new coordinators on both sides of the ball and a new defensive line coach, Spring 2010 is going to be a different experience for even the most experienced coaches and players.

That is especially true of current Middle Tennessee running back coach Willie Simmons. He's entering his fourth season on the Blue Raider staff, but this year he'll have the added responsibility of passing game coordinator.

"Basically what that involves is getting more and more involved with formulating the weekly game plan," Simmons tells BRZ during a phone interview on the eve of Spring training. "It's really looking at what the opponent's defense does on a weekly basis and coming up with an efficient passing game based on that."

Head coach Rick Stockstill has gone on record as saying he's really looking to improve the passing game during the 2010 campaign and he obviously felt that Simmons was the right man for the job. Despite focusing on the run game for the past three seasons, Blue Raider fans should feel comfortable with his understanding of an efficient passing offense. Simmons played quarterback for Clemson for three seasons beginning in 2000.

"Coach Stockstill and I have a 12-year relationship stemming from the time he recruited me out of high school," recalls Simmons. "We stayed in constant contact throughout that time. He's been like a father to me, so of course that relationship continued to grow."

When a position opened up on the Blue Raider staff prior to the 2007 season, Stockstill thought of his old pupil, who had just completed his first year as a graduate assistant at his alma mater.

"I honestly had no idea he was even considering me for the position," Simmons laughs. "It's really just by the grace of God that I'm here and I was extremely thankful for the opportunity."

Simmons has certainly made the most of that opportunity. In his first season in Murfreesboro, the Blue Raiders finished with just over 1600 rushing yards. In 2009 that total improved to 2418 yards on the ground, and that was after running back Phillip Tanner went down with a knee injury in the early part of the season. Because of the injury to the senior leader, Simmons had to turn to the relatively inexperienced D. D. Kyles to utilize the run game.

"D.D. didn't know what to expect going into the season," Simmons says. Kyles sat out most of his first season on campus because of an injury and then spent 2008 on the scout team, seeing snaps at wide receiver, defensive back and running back. Under circumstances strangely similar to the 2010 season, Kyles saw quality reps in the Spring of 2009 when Tanner was sidelined by a hamstring injury.

Those reps with the first team offense turned out to be extremely crucial last season. With little experience and even less preparation for a featured role, Kyles managed to rush for 879 yards during 12 games in 2009.

In addition to turning an inexperienced runner into a valuable addition to the Blue Raider offense, Simmons' improvised running game served another purpose: taking the pressure off of Dwight Dasher the runner and allowing him to focus on being Dwight Dasher the passer. Improving this aspect of the offense is an emphasis for both Coach Stockstill and Coach Simmons heading into spring ball. The biggest item on the agenda: playing without the football.

"Pass protection," says Simmons firmly, when asked what Spring ball will focus on. "There were 19 sacks last season and three or four were because of the back and that should never happen. One or two were missed assignments and the others just got beat."

Along with improved pass protection, Simmons is also hoping to get a good look at several newcomers to spring practices. David Jones and William Pratcher are both red shirt freshman who are going through their first season of spring drills with the Blue Raiders.

"Spring ball is an open try out, but it's going to be hard to jump past those experienced guys in 14 days," Simmons says of the red shirt duo. "You've got three guys in front of them who have played quality reps, so you're going to have to do a lot to go out there and beat those guys."

Because of the talent of both Jones and Pratcher, they will definitely see the field in Spring and during the 2010 season. While a majority of their playing time will probably come in special teams roles, they could possibly be worked into the offense in one way or another.

Whether it be a seasoned veteran like Tanner, a newcomer like Pratcher or a dual-threat like Dasher, coach Willie Simmons has plenty of tools in his arsenal to continue Middle Tennessee's recent success in 2010.

Extra Extra:

Simmons on his new role so far:
"My film study has improved tremendously. You really have to get entrenched into watching film and understanding what the defense does and find ways to attack them. Knowing your personnel, you have to come up with a plan that your guys can execute. You can draw up the best play in the world on a chalkboard, but if your team can't execute it it's all for nothing."

Simmons on D.D. Kyles: "The main thing he improved was his attitude. He was benched for the Miss. State game and after that he was a completely different guy. His attitude changed and he believed he could play once he saw himself have some success. He transformed his attitude and we're looking for him to continue to do that this season."

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