Former starter Mike Goolsby sat out last season with a shoulder injury. We asked Simmons about his health and if he was able to practice last fall. "Yeah, Mike got better towards the end of the year," Simmons said. "He had limited contact--I think they wanted to bring him back slow to make sure he was physically fit. By the end of the season he was able to do everything."
Having Goolsby back at middle linebacker will give the Irish a true thumper inside. Courtney Watson manned the position last year and Simmons said he thought Watson did a fine job. He also thinks the year off will make Goolsby an even better player. "I thought Courtney did a heck of a job, he led the team in tackles both years – of course, he played both mike and inside backer his junior year. I think having Mike back gives us a real big strong kid inside that has some quickness and ability to run and ability to cover. I think Mike will be a big asset there because he took last year as a learning year, he studied a lot of film and I think there was a lot of personal growth and I look to him to be a big factor for us."
Will linebacker Brandon Hoyte will return to his starting role. Earlier last year Simmons told Irish Eyes that Hoyte needed to improve in his pass coverage. We asked Simmons if he felt Hoyte improved in that area last year. "I have got to do a better job as a coach to get him to understand concepts and get him in the right position. That is one of the challenges that I have because Brandon is a good football player and he adds a lot to this football team and he wants to be an all round player."
"From the standpoint of understanding our coverage and knowing routes and getting back depth, when they watch film I have to make sure he understands that, so when he gets in those situations he knows what to do," Simmons continued. "That is a coaching thing that as a linebacker coach I need to get him to understand this spring."
Sam linebacker Derek Curry will also return to his starting role. Simmons is very high on Curry. "I think Derek has shown to us all that he really is a student of the game and just by his versatility to play both inside and outside is why he is in our nickel package, he understands coverage and drops. He really got people lined up and that is a big asset for us, to have a guy on the field communicate those kinds of things."
"I think Derek knows that where he needs to improve is in overall space and the ability to tackle in overall space. I think playing last year inside is going to help him, especially from the standpoint of taking on guards and the run pitch. He brings that experience to the table--that he can play inside. Our first ball game he was able to go inside and play the mike backer which shows us how versatile he can be."
Corey Mays also returns as a middle linebacker. Mays has played sparingly so far. Simmons believes we will see a lot more of Mays in 2004. "I told Corey that now is his time, he is going into his third year and he's big and strong and maybe faster than most of our linebackers. Overall knowledge of the game and understanding what he needs to do is important and he showed last year that that is starting to come for him. He's big, he's strong and he can run. He's got to learn to shed blocks a little bit more but I really do have high expectations for him to be factor and to play."
With the move of Jerome Collins to tight end, the development of Mitchell Thomas becomes very important for depth issues. We asked Simmons for his assessment of Thomas and how he is developing. "The big thing for Mitchell is just to learn. I agree with the fact that he is going to be an excellent athlete and will bring speed to the table but there is a maturing and learning process and it starts with the fundamentals and overall discipline. This spring is very, very important for him. We like his athleticism, he is a former tailback and is getting bigger and stronger, Coach Mick is doing a great job in the weight room and we are all excited to see what kind of player he is going to be this spring. In talking to him I say you have to learn what to do and that is going to be big for him."
Two other freshman are playing the middle or mike position for the Irish as of now. Nick Borseti and Dwight Stephenson are both are still learning the position according to Simmons. "Both of those guys are going to be inside, whether at mike or will. What I really want to do is find out their ability to learn the defense, make plays, be physical, knowing the drops, and I think just watching them through the off-season program they will both be bigger and stronger. What it will give you if both of those young men can understand is two strong, big inside linebackers. It is going to be interesting what happens this spring. I've watched and liked how Borseti has progressed in his size and his ability to understand. It is going to be a new role for Dwight--he has all kinds of ability. The challenge now is to see whether they can accept the coaching and the learning in terms of playing."
Joe Brockington is the other freshman learning to play linebacker. Brockington is lined up at the will position. Simmons has been impressed with his progress thus far. "Joe has really improved in the off-season and a guy we see as a shorter version of Courtney Watson. He was a tailback in high school and is about 225 right now. He has excellent quickness and that is going to be his asset, his quickness and his ability to help us in our pass coverage. All of the freshmen have had a year now and this spring is about adapting to what we want them to do and learning what we want them to do as coaches."
The one player in this most recent recruiting class that we know the least about is Maurice Crum. We asked Simmons what he liked about Crum and why the Irish offered this player early in the process. "We did offer him early because we really liked him. He'll be a quick, fast kind of individual, more of a will guy. He is going to be very active, elusive, I think his dad played a little in the NFL but he'll be explosive when you see him run and see him hit. As he gets into our system he's a guy who will show up fast like Vernaglia. When you watch him (Vernaglia) on film, he's a guy who plays wide receiver and then you watch him on defense and what you've go is an athlete. He's a playmaker and that is what you need."
Simmons has a lot of experience in coaching and almost all of it is on the defensive side of the ball. Some Irish fans have suggested that maybe the defense is too difficult to understand. We asked Simmons if the current Irish defensive philosophy is more complicated than the other defenses he's been involved with or other teams in college football currently run
If you look around the country you'll find out that a lot of people are doing the same thing," Simmons said. "It is about personnel. It's a package that we feel fits our individual players that we have here. We feel we can get a lot of things done with it."
Linebacker should be a position of strength for the Irish on defense. It's vital that the Irish get some of the current freshmen playing time, however, because Goolsby and Curry will use their final year of eligibility. The spring will be very important for these current freshmen. The next starters at linebacker will likely be decided this spring. Irish Eyes will keep an eye on who might be the likely candidates of the future.