Growing pains

A green line makes for a black and blue quarterback. That's why Tennessee's Matt Simms may have a future in the auto industry ... as a crash-test dummy.

Simms essentially has been the human equivalent of a crash-test dummy the past three weeks - having been sacked six times by Florida, five times by UAB and five times by LSU. In addition to the 16 sacks, he was belted another 15-20 times immediately after releasing the football.

So, when folks talk about the "growing pains" of Tennessee's offensive line, the guy feeling those pains is Matt Simms, who literally has bumps and bruises from head to toe at the start of each week.

"I actually haven't taken an ice bath all year ... yet," he said with a grin. "I believe in the natural healing process, I guess."

The 6-3, 217-pound Simms handles the hits surprisingly well. In fact, they don't seem to bother him as much as the prospect of having those hits replayed over and over at season's end.

"This is SEC football; you're going to get hit," he said. "The bad thing is, I'm going to be on a lot of their highlight reels, and I don't even want to be on their highlight reels. But that's the reason why I came here - to compete against the best."

Simms took probably the hardest lick he has absorbed all season last Saturday vs. LSU, when freshman linebacker Kevin Minter belted him to the ground and caused him to fumble.

"That one kid lit me up on that one play," Simms said with a shake of his head. "I was getting ready to throw the ball and, next thing I know, I'm on my head. I'm like, 'What the hell happened?'

"But that's just part of the game. You've got to be tough and come back and keep fighting through it."

Because Tennessee's blocking front consists almost exclusively of freshmen and sophomores, pass protection inevitably will be shaky at times. Simms sees the young blockers making steady progress, however.

"It's truly amazing," he said. "There's growing pains, and whoever is the quarterback after me, good for him, because he's not going to get touched in a few years. That's for sure. They're doing a great job. Each week they get better. Yeah, I get hit every now and then but they're doing an unbelievable job."

Although Tennessee's young linemen get whipped occasionally, they are never defeated. They compete with a mental toughness that their quarterback finds terribly encouraging.

"Standing in that huddle with them, looking into their eyes, they look back at you like 'Let's go. I've been here before.' It's a really good feeling to see your O-line look back at you like that, especially (given) how young they are," Simms said. "It's truly amazing how dedicated they are and how well they're working together and how great of a job Coach (Harry) Hiestand has done to get them ready."

Even surrendering 16 sacks the past three weeks, the line's progress is clearly visible. For instance, only one of the five sacks vs. LSU occurred after halftime.

"I think it was a little more attention to detail in the second half," Simms said, "and focusing more on what we needed to do."

Interestingly enough, following the first sack last Saturday an LSU defender smirked, "We'll be back here all day." Simms returned the grin and replied, "Yeah, and I'll be back here, too."

And he was, taking everything the Tigers could dish out, then coming back for more.

"I love every minute of it," Simms said. "I love that competitive spirit about it - showing those guys that, even though they hit me hard, I'm still going to get up and keep playing."

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