'In Matt we trust'

In Hollywood westerns the star gets to wear the white hat and kiss the dance-hall girls. Then, when it's time for the dirty work - getting thrown from a galloping horse or decked in a saloon fight - the stunt man gets the call.

Apparently, Matt Simms is the stunt man for Tennessee's football team. He took the beating last fall when the Vols were getting poor pass protection from a freshman-dominated offensive line and facing the likes of Oregon, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina. Then, when the time came to kiss the dance-hall girls (Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky), the star (Tyler Bray) took center stage.

Now 2011 is shaping up as a sequel to 2010. Bray got to handle the fun part of the schedule and Simms again finds himself stuck with the dirty work — facing the salty defenses of No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama and No. 15 South Carolina the next three weeks.

Like a Hollywood stunt man, Matt Simms gets little credit from the casual observer but is respected and appreciated by the people behind the scenes ... namely his Vol teammates. They're confident he can handle the lead role now that Bray is sidelined by a fractured right thumb.

"I have a ton of respect for Matt Simms," junior safety Prentiss Waggner said. "He was very mature about the situation he was put in (demoted eight games into the 2010 season). I never seen Matt complaining, never seen his head down. Throughout the whole summer he worked as if he was the starter."

Although Simms came within a whisker of guiding the Vols to an upset of LSU last fall in Baton Rouge, most observers give the Big Orange no chance in Saturday's rematch at Neyland Stadium.

"I don't see how," sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith said. "Wasn't Matt Simms the starting quarterback in the LSU game last year? That's the way I feel about it. If people can't see that, that's their loss."

Senior defensive end Ben Martin touched on the same theme, noting: "We know that Simms is a good quarterback and we know what he's capable of. Down there last year he took them down to the wire, so I've got complete faith in Simms. I trust him."

That's a recurring theme among Tennessee players. They recall how Simms took shot after shot without complaint while the Vols' youthful offensive line was learning to pass protect last fall.

"I think he earned a lot of respect, as far as taking hits," senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson said.

Ironically, Simms won even more respect after he lost his job. Swallowing his pride, he bounced back from that bitter disappointment to show remarkable determination during the offseason. Though clearly relegated to the No. 2 role, he competed just as fiercely and worked just as diligently with the young receivers as a No. 1 QB would.

"He never stopped working," sophomore center James Stone noted. "He kept the same mentality. He always prepares like he's the No. 1 quarterback ... always wants to sit in on meetings and stuff like that."

Sophomore guard Alex Bullard noticed the same thing about Simms.

"His mental preparation is key," Bullard said. "There are times after the quarterbacks meeting that he'll come into the offensive line room and watch film with Coach (Harry) Hiestand and us, so he can see what we're seeing and we can all be on the same page."

Simms' willingness to prepare like a No. 1 quarterback paid dividends Saturday night. When Bray was injured with around five minutes remaining, Simms came on to complete 4 of 6 passes for 39 yards in capping the Vols' only touchdown drive of the night.

"I have a lot of confidence in Matt," Smith said. "He's a really great quarterback, and he can get the ball around — as you saw at the end of the Georgia game. He has the confidence of the people around him."

That confidence means a lot.

"It means everything," Bullard said. "As you saw when Tyler went down, Simms came in and led us to a touchdown at the end of the game. He's ready to go."

Teammates believe he's ready, willing and able.

"When he got demoted he was pretty upset but now he's got an opportunity to take his spot back with his play," Jackson said. "I think he's going to come out here, have fun and do what he knows he can do."

Even if Simms can't deliver an upset of America's top-ranked team Saturday afternoon, he already delivered the kind of leadership that makes the Vols think they can win.

"He definitely did," Smith said. "He won the respect of all the players. That tells you what type of senior leadership he gives this team. He will help the offense this week, and I think he will be the difference in the game."

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