CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Malik Simmons entered North Carolina’s training camp atop the depth chart at cornerback before a two-game suspension stemming from off-the-field issues halted his momentum.
While his suspension delivered a lasting setback, Simmons received a reprieve of sorts on Saturday due to, oddly enough, the suspensions of fellow cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Mike Hughes. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound defensive back notched his 17th career start – and more importantly, the first of his senior season – in UNC’s 50-14 win over Wake Forest.
“I was really proud of the way he played Saturday,” defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s been back in the mix and he’s kind of knocked off the dust a little bit. I didn’t know how he would respond on game day, but he really did well. He played within the structure of the defense, did what we asked him to do, and I thought he was very productive within the defense.”
Simmons was suspended in late July for violating team rules. He was facing misdemeanor charges of marijuana possession (up to 1/2 ounce) and resisting a public officer at the time. UNC head coach Larry Fedora announced his two-game suspension following the adjudication of the court cases on Aug. 7.
Simmons continued to practice with the team, although not being available to play the first two weeks of the season dropped him down the depth chart.
“It was difficult,” Simmons said. “This is my last year and I wanted to be out on the field helping my team be victorious. But I knew [the suspension] was coming, so I just mentally prepared myself. I did go into a little bit of a slump, but I got over it.”
Chizik constantly preaches that football is a game that will test your mental toughness. Simmons admits that his toughness was undoubtedly tested, forcing him to draw on the strength of his position group to overcome the mental hurdles.
Less than a month after Simmons was reinstated, UNC announced the indefinite suspensions of Stewart and Hughes for a violation of team rules related to an altercation that occurred at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house on Oct. 4. Both players are facing misdemeanor assault charges.
Simmons placed phone calls to Stewart and Hughes as soon as he learned of the incident. His message was clear: they should be learning from his mistakes to not get in trouble.
It was his intent to cover for his teammates and not allow the defense to falter against the Demon Deacons.
“I feel like my teammates have confidence in me, and I have confidence in them, of course,” Simmons said. “They just know I went down with a bad situation, kind of like my teammates did, but we know there’s no drop off in the secondary. If anybody was in my position and had to step up, our defense would be okay.”
His teammates weren’t the only ones that had confidence in his coverage skills. Seventeen starts and 84 career starts tends to have that effect.
“We weren’t worried about whether Malik was going to play or how he was going to play,” Fedora said. “We knew he was going to play good. He’s a senior and he’s gotten a lot of reps, so we felt comfortable with that.”
Simmons will potentially start his second game of the season against Virginia on Saturday as Stewart completes his two-game suspension.