The name TJ Simmons has been surrounded with a hint of mystery and intrigue over the better part of the last year.
A 12-time starter as a true freshman and decorated player in his first three years starting at linebacker, Simmons missed all of 2016 with a knee injury. He wound up still able to participate in plenty of scout team drills, however, even earning a Scout Team Player of the Week nod for his work ahead of Wake Forest.
“T. J. Simmons is coming off a bum knee where he’s not really playing yet,” former head coach Kevin Wilson said in September. “He’s got a redshirt year, but we’re trying to just get him.”
Indiana wound up opting against bringing Simmons back last season, making him eligible to play a fifth-year senior season. He hasn't been a regular on the field since he was a junior the fall of 2015. A knee scope kept him out of spring practice in 2016 and apparently lingered into the 2016 season.
All told, Indiana didn't need Simmons last season thanks to Marcus Oliver taking over the MIKE linebacker spot and Tegray Scales holding down the WILL. With Oliver out chasing NFL dreams, Simmons is fighting to earn a starting spot he owned his first three years in Bloomington.
"TJ has a personality of knowing and understanding that he can control some things," IU linebackers coach William Inge said in the spring. "His effort, his attitude, his passion and love for the game. When he shows up to practice his personality just literally infects the five or six guys around him right off the bat just because he's so happy."
Wilson made it sound like IU intended to get Simmons into the mix as soon as his knee injury healed last season, but that never wound up happening. The knee injury was apparently too much to handle, and it wasn't like the Hoosiers were in desperate need at linebacker.
Main Hurdle: Learning another new defense
It's a good thing Simmons likes watching film and studying the game, because he doesn't have much option after all the change he's seen during his time at IU.
Simmons has played for two head coaches and three defensive coordinators during his time as a Hoosier. The latest change brought in Tom Allen, who's been around Simmons for more than a year now but hasn't gotten the opportunity to truly coach him on the field.
And while playing with the scout team last season does Simmons better than sitting on the sideline, he wasn't actually learning to play in IU's defense during that time. While on scout team, players simulate opponents and their formations instead of learning Indiana's own schemes.
Luckily, for Indiana, Simmons managed to sit through a full season of learning from Allen already and is as veteran as they come. He should have all the "book smarts," as it were, but he'll need to put what he learned in the classroom to work once he hits the field.
Best Case: Earning his starting spot again
Simmons was one of the scariest players in the Big Ten when he was on...But can he return to that old form?
That's the all-important question.
Simmons made 68 tackles as a true freshman, setting a program record for starts at linebacker with 12, and followed it up with 72 tackles as a sophomore and 73 as a junior. Then injuries put a hold on his career, and it wasn't clear whether or not he'd even return for his final season of eligibility.
Back again, Simmons is in the midst of fighting for the starting MIKE linebacker spot with guys like senior Chris Covington and junior Mike McGinnis, among others. His seniority won't do him any favors against veterans like that, so every snap Simmons gets will have to be earned.
High School Flashback
Simmons was a tackle machine in high school, finishing his career with 325 stops.
As a senior alone, Simmons made 121 stops, three sacks, 32 tackles for loss, two interceptions and one fumble recovery. He wound up earning a First-Team All-State nod and was twice named All-County.
Simmons immediately outperformed his 5.5 Rivals Rating as a true freshman, earning BTN.com Honorable Mention on the All-Big Ten Freshman Team. ESPN.com also named him to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team, and CollegeFootballNews.com went as far to give him Freshman All-American Honorable Mention.
Simmons enrolled at Indiana in January. He chose the Hoosiers over the likes of Iowa State, Toledo and Western Kentucky.
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