Simmons: Winning Butkus Award ‘Really Special’

Jeremy Styron

Clemson junior Isaiah Simmons entered rarified air this past Sunday when he joined some of college football’s most elite former linebackers, including Von Miller and Luke Kuechly, to receive the Butkus Award.

Since the Butkus Award’s inception in 1985, only a handful of players from ACC schools have taken home the honors for top linebacker in the nation. The 2019 season marked the first time Clemson has had a player earn the distinction.

Simmons said receivingthe award was a standout achievement in his college career.

“It was honestly just a blessing,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did without my support around me, my linebacker corps. They’ve all helped me through it, so I can’t even take credit for all of it. … It was really cool, really special, a really special moment.”

He said winning the award validated all the sacrifices he made working to improve his individual skills and help his team succeed.

“I guess it’s something you always dream about, so I can say I have imagined myself here, but being here I’d say it’s cool. It’s a blessing,” he said. “Obviously, it’s kind of like all the hard I put in is starting to pay off.”

In addition to winning the Butkus Award, Simmons was recently named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and was a first team, all-ACC pick. He had 10 tackles (2.0 for a loss) and a sack in the Tigers’ regular season finale against South Carolina and finished with nine tackles and an interception against Virginia in the ACC championship game.

He also had a season-high 11 tackles (3.5 for a loss) and two sacks earlier in the year in a win against Syracuse, and he leads the team with 93 total tackles on the season.

Despite the success, he has had to overcome some adversity at Clemson, he said. Being moved from the safety position after his freshman year in 2017, he has spent two seasons manning the linebacker spot.

“It’s probably my hardest year I’ve had because just growing up, I’ve just always been used to being like that guy and coming in and being set back a little bit was probably the biggest thing I had to deal with, but in the long run, I think that helped me,” Simmons said. “I grew a lot as a player mentally and physically, so I think that year actually helped me even though it was something I struggled with.”

He said that as a team, although Clemson lost some key players to graduation last year, the current crop of defenders is just as strong as last season’s team.

“We had a really special team last year, but now that this year, I think we’ve done fine with what we have,” he said. “Our front four team has stepped up and (has been) just amazing this year, and our linebacker corps have done just as amazing as we have last year.”

He said that amid concerns about Clemson’s strength of schedule through 2019, the overriding philosophy of the team has been to focus more on what the players can control on the field.

“I don’t think we’re so focused on who we’re playing because you don’t ever want to play down to your opponent or play up to an opponent,” Simmons said. “You just want to play your best football. That’s kind of how, like, not just how my mentality is or Coach (Dabo) Swinney’s, but everybody on the team’s mentality is.”

Even though the team is riding a fierce 28-game undefeated streak and is positioned to have an opportunity to play for another national title, Simmons said the Tigers’ still have elements of their game that need improvement.

“I think we can play better football,” Simmons said. “The best is always yet to come. We have plenty of things that we can clean up and fix, and so I don’t think we’ve played our best football at all.”