When TJ Simmons arrived in Morgantown, the West Virginia offense was full of big names like Will Grier, David Sills and Gary Jennings. Simmons was definitely a contributor on the offense — reeling in 28 catches for 341 yards in 12 games — but he was far from the first option.
This season, Simmons is presumably going to be the top guy in the Mountaineers’ receiving corps, which may lead fans to wonder: can this year’s squad step up and fill the shoes of the “stars” that have departed?
“A lot of people don’t think we’ve got star power, they don’t think we have the players to do the job,” Simmons said at Big 12 Media Days. “The challenge to us is going to be to show everybody what we can do.”
As a redshirt junior in his second season at West Virginia, Simmons is now one of the leaders in the locker room as well as on the field. With all of the changes being made around the program and the lack of experience at many position groups, this is a crucial role of which Simmons sees the value.
As Coach Neal Brown has yet to name a starter, Austin Kendall and Jack Allison are still ostensibly vying for the top quarterback job. As the top pass-catcher, Simmons says he is doing what he can to take some of the pressure off the signal callers in practice.
“Just being able to be a shoulder for them to lean on, because I feel like I’ve played more games than both of our quarterbacks. I have a little more experience than both of them,” Simmons explained. “Just being able to keep them calm, and just let them know we’ve got their back no matter what.”
He’s not wrong. In his first year at West Virginia, Simmons played in all 12 games, and before his transfer from Alabama, the Birmingham native saw time in another 12 contests for the Crimson Tide. Meanwhile, Allison and Kendall have combined for 13 career game appearances.
Much of Simmons’s responsibility is in his own backyard, so to speak. With the departure of Sills, Jennings and Marcus Simms (the one, two and three receivers of 2018), there are several new faces in the receiving corps. Sam James, a redshirt freshman from Richmond Hill, Georgia, is a name that many Mountaineer fans could become familiar with in the coming months.
“Sam — he’s a very explosive, very fast, fast kid,” Simmons described. “He picks up on things, like, he’s smart. He knows that he has to be a guy this year, he knows he has to step up and make those plays.”
A former high school track star, James appeared in four games last season despite getting a redshirt. His lack of experience has led Simmons to take him under his wing and show him what goes on between the lines — whether it has to do with football or not.
“I think I push him more than I push anybody. I treat Sam like my little brother,” Simmons explained. “I might pick on him a little bit, I might push him around a little bit, but that’s just because whenever game time comes, he doesn’t have to worry about a corner bullying him or nothing like that.”