A fan-favorite series is coming back to the site as it is officially prospect interview season. For anybody new to the site or for people who need a reminder, every draft season I sit down with prospects that are going to be in the upcoming NFL Draft to talk with them about their off-field accomplishments and some film aspects on the field. While I don’t always talk to star players, I have been able to talk to a few players who eventually ended up with the Colts such as Khari Willis, Marvell Tell III, and Rock Ya-Sin.
Our next prospect interview is with Michigan State linebacker Antjuan Simmons. We had a great conversation about his journey back from fracturing his spine as a Freshman, his rise into a leadership role at MSU, and his aggressive play style on the field.
Weight: 225 pounds
Simmons is a former four-star recruit out of Ann Arbor Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He played a role immediately as a Freshman as he appeared in 12 games for the team. He suffered a pretty major setback at the end of the season though as he fractured his spine in the bowl game against Washington State. However, he came back stronger the next season and didn’t miss a game for the Spartans.
He slowly transitioned from a slot linebacker type role to more in the box and as the Will backer throughout his career. He also grew as a leader of the team as he was a Team Captain his last two years and had a hand in the head coach search that Michigan State had prior to his Senior season. For his career, he finished with 230 tackles, 26 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, 1 interception, 4 pass deflections, and 2 forced fumbles.
He was an All Big-Ten Honorable Mention in 2019 and an All Big-Ten Second Team selection in 2020. He was also invited to the NFLPA Bowl and East-West Shrine game after his Senior season.
ZH: I saw that you fractured your vertebrae as a freshman, is that right?
AS: Yeah, my t5 is somewhere between 25 and 30% smaller than what it was before.
ZH: Jeez.. How was that whole recovery process for you? Because this isn’t like an ACL or Achilles injury even, this is life-threatening, right?
AS: One of the hardest things I have ever been through, man. It was a six-month recovery with no surgery, or back brace, or anything. Throughout the whole process, I was told if I sleep wrong or do anything to aggravate it, I won’t be able to play football and need to get some procedure where they drill a hole through your spine, straighten it out, and then put concrete in that vertebrae. It was scary as heck, man. Getting my feet back under me was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do football-wise.
ZH: Yeah, that kind of was my next question. You are insane on the football field and that shocked me knowing that you had this injury as a freshman. How were you able to mentally get back to the point where you could play as you play now?
AS: Going through my sophomore season was tough! I would flash and have a good game or make a few really good plays but then I’d have a few where I played without confidence. It was the last game against Rutgers, a guy came across the field in the same exact way that happened in the bowl game, and I was in the same situation covering the field curl. It was the same exact hit, man, and when I hit him, I got up and nothing was wrong and that was when I could truly think to myself that I was back.
ZH: You then went on to become a Team Captain and All Big-Ten player in your career after this injury. What did that mean to you to get those accomplishments after everything you went through?
AS: It meant a lot. I always tried to live up to being a leader whether it was on the field, off the field, or even in the classroom. With the injuries, man, it was tough but I luckily had great teammates around me. I remember recovering from my injury and Andrew Dowell and Joe Bachie missed that Spring as well and we were just leaning on each other. We were basically the linebacker coaches. Andrew and Joe were basically like big brothers to me. Having those guys and other guys supporting me throughout my recovery process, even when I could only walk on a treadmill, was so big to me and I am glad I was able to be a leader for them towards the end of my career.
Talking Khari Willis
ZH: I love asking players about Colts players they played with so, what are your overall thoughts on Khari Willis?
AS: I love Khari, man. That’s my guy. I was just talking to him a few days ago telling him how much respect I have for him and everything he has done. He is somebody that a lot of us at Michigan State football aspire to be like. He always comes back, talks to us, and whatever we need, he is always there. Khari is amazing. You just turn on the tape and he just flies around. In 2018, when we played Purdue, Khari told us all week that he wants Rondale Moore. So on third downs in that game, that is where Khari was at. He locked him down for most of the game too. He is one heck of a player, one heck of a leader, and one of those guys that when the team needs something, he gets it done.
ZH: I said earlier that I was so impressed with how you flew around the field after your injury as a freshman. How much does film study play into having the ability to play fast on the football field?
AS: It’s a big deal, man. I just like to sit and watch my key. Whether that is the running back or the guard, I’m envisioning where I have to mirror my key in the film room. My goal is trying to practice as clean as possible. The more crisp it is in practice, the more crisp it will be on gamedays and, of course, the violence is going to follow too. So, I just try to hone in on my keys because the more you know your key, the faster you are able to play.
Antjuan Simmons stuffing Jonathan Taylor for a loss... We need to talk more about Simmons. He's good pic.twitter.com/yjwMtgP2nZ— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) February 16, 2021
Positioning in the NFL
ZH: So, obviously, there are different linebacker spots in the NFL. What position did you line up at the most in college?
AS: My first three years, on base downs, I played that nickel/hybrid linebacker position. Then on third downs, I was more of a WILL linebacker on the boundary covering running backs and tight ends. When we switched over to the 4-2-5 this past year, I was a full-time WILL linebacker and that was the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been in college. Being over the ball, in between the guards, on almost every snap allowed me to go inside-out on everything was so much fun. Feeding off of our defensive line, who were told to penetrate and make a play, was great because I got to sit behind them and make plays.
ZH: You guys went to more one gap type play up front then? The defensive line was more shooting gaps and disrupting in the backfield?
AS: Our D-line had the freedom to be as disruptive as they wanted to, besides when we had a stunt on or something. If our coaches sent in a call with no stunt, which was rare, they had that range to go make plays, and all we had to do as backers is correct them. It was fun because not too many times do you take the chains off the big fellas and let them just go.
ZH: That means you faced more reach blocks and linemen climbing to you at the second level too though, right? You enjoyed the havoc of that even though you had to face more linemen in your face?
AS: I actually had more fun playing in the box. I feel that I’m an even better linebacker in the box. I can play outside in a hybrid position, but in the box and running inside-out on everything is where I have the most fun at. It took me some time to get used to it but I had such a fun time in the box this past year.
Antjuan Simmons is a blast to watch so far tbh pic.twitter.com/NaMZSY0uoM— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) February 16, 2021
For context, most of my phone interviews go for around 10-15 minutes long. Before this next question, Antjuan and I were approaching the 30-minute mark (so yes, I did have to cut down some of this article).
ZH: I feel like some of this is getting lost because people can’t hear how energetic and fun you are to talk to. I have to get you on a podcast or something (laughs). I want to get more hype around you too.
AS: Man, I am all on board with that. Dude, I feel dang-near DISRESPECTED. I feel like if you put my tape next to anybody’s in the country, my tape is just as good as anybody's. I didn’t have all the hype though and didn’t come from the “winning program.” I don’t have the hype around me. It is fine, I have no problem having to go through a few extra hurdles and whatnot but I definitely feel a little disrespected and a little slighted. It’s all good though. They just gonna feel me.
Okay so I know Indy won't take him because he is tiny with tiny arms but imagine this crazy motherf*cker next to Darius Leonard pic.twitter.com/1IDpxIDhJv— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) February 16, 2021
ZH: We have gone through just about everything today so I’ll finish with my typical question; What is my team getting when they spend a draft pick on Antjuan Simmons?
AS: You are getting a standup guy. I’m accountable, trustworthy, and I’m going to show up on the field. I am always ready to work. No matter how it is, I will work. Just like how Khari (Willis) is, I try to be the exact same way. Whatever the coach needs, I’m going to get that done to the very best of my ability. I’m going to go hard as possible every single snap, and every practice. You are getting a leader, somebody who wants to do things right, and is going to push his teammates to do things right as well.
I’ve never won a Championship, but I WANT TO WIN. Like... (deep breathe)... We weren’t very successful at Michigan State and I want to know what it is like to step on the field and dominate teams and handle people. I wanna win, man. I’m tired of being the underdog and at this point, I just want to go. It doesn’t matter who is in front of me, I just wanna play ball and win at the highest level.
Antjuan Simmons is gonna go crazy this fall Expect him to make a run for 1st team All Big-Ten pic.twitter.com/8WOJkYP9FX— Spartan Dawgs Sports ⚔️ (@MSUOverAllOfYou) July 18, 2020
I went into this interview without any expectations in regards to Antjuan Simmons. I liked his film a lot but his personality really won me over the more we talked. He is an extremely hungry player, and that shows in the film as well. He fits the personality type and mindset that the Colts love in their locker room.
The only issue I could see is his size. Chris Ballard loves lengthy freaks at linebacker and that just isn’t Simmons. However, he has made exceptions to his height/size requirements in the past for certain players such as Isaiah Rodgers and Kenny Moore II. Overall, I really like Simmons’ film and who he is as a person and think that if he is given the opportunity, he will show out in the league.