Anyone who knows anything about football scouting knows about the 40-yard dash. It’s the go-to stat of football recruiting, a concrete number other than height and weight that can compare two different players from nothing more than a quick workout.
It was the premier event at Boston College’s Pro Day on Wednesday afternoon, as about 15 NFL scouts with 15 stopwatches huddled next to orange cones inside the Bubble at Alumni Stadium, waiting for four linemen, three defensive backs, and a wide receiver to come barrelling toward midfield, one after another from the 10-yard line. Each player knew exactly what to expect: four had already gone through the NFL Combine a few weeks ago, and the rest have also developed firm warm-up routines for the all-out sprint that can play an important role in determining whether a player will hear his name called on Draft weekend.
“You just gotta come out here and be a football player, be an athlete,” graduating linebacker Stephen Daniels said. “For us, we practice this stuff for two and a half, sometimes three months in some cases. So, we just gotta come out here, be confident, and do what we do.”
After that simple and popular tradition, though, things can get a little different at Pro Day. Linemen took turns executing a series of agility drills—still under the shadow of the almighty stopwatch—but with more involved motions than running straight from point A to point B. The turf at Alumni Stadium didn’t seem to help, as several players slipped and fell while making the sharpest cuts they could around the cones, but they also seemed to struggle with the direction of the drills, at times having to restart because of a couple first steps in the wrong direction. Though most recovered well and could post a time by the second try, these mental slip-ups can’t go unnoticed by scouts, who need to decipher how well a player can learn under pressure just as much as they need to find out how fast they can run.
On the next round of drills, Justin Simmons began to demonstrate just that.
Alan Williams, the defensive backs/safeties coach from the Detroit Lions, stepped up to facilitate a lengthy array of drills for BC’s three defensive back participants—Simmons and 2014 graduates Manuel Asprilla and Dominique Williams—as well as Daniels. Simmons went first each time, quickly picking up on the coach’s instructions, running the routes called for without needing a do-over, and showing off his great hands and quickness. Tack on a notable performance at the NFL Combine, and Simmons has likely become the most attractive prospect BC has to offer.
Simmons hasn’t always appeared destined for the NFL. After starting in more than half of BC’s games and recording 52 tackles in 2012, he returned with a quieter sophomore season, playing in each game but picking up just 34 tackles. In his junior season, injuries in BC’s secondary forced him to shift from his natural safety position to corner for six games, but he still managed to lead the nation’s second-best defense in tackles with 72. Though he moved back to free safety this past season, Simmons is grateful to have the experience.
“Most teams are seeing me as a safety, but I think playing corner in the past and a little bit of nickel shows my versatility,” he said.
Safety was, after all, the position Simmons shone in most this fall. Though his tackle numbers shrank slightly—down to 67—he finished the season with a team-high five interceptions, two of which came in his signature game: this November’s contest against Notre Dame.
It was a nationally televised matchup against a ranked rival at Fenway Park—just about the biggest stage a college athlete can reach in regular-season play. Going up against the No. 4 Fighting Irish, a team on the fringe of a College Football Playoff berth, Simmons more than exemplified BC’s dominant defense. After junior John Johnson nabbed an interception in the end zone on the opening drive of the game, Simmons forced a fumble in the first quarter, got an interception in the second, and another pick in the third.
Though the Eagles ultimately fell, it got Simmons a firm spot on the map. After the combine, Lance Zierlein of NFL.com pegged Simmons to go on the third day of the Draft, citing some concern over his skinny frame—it depends a bit on where you look, but he usually comes in at about 6-foot-2 and just over 200 pounds. His overall athleticism and knowledge, however, still make him a prospect worth looking at.
Simmons said after he has spoken with pretty much all 32 teams, a product of getting to go to the combine. On Wednesday, besides the time he spent working with the Lions’ coach, the man who seemed most interested in looking at Simmons was a New York Giants scout, who chatted with the safety for about five minutes after his workout.
Of course, everything comes back to the 40. Simmons listed it as his main goal of improvement for Pro Day after running what he felt was a slow 4.61 at the combine, and he felt as though he had a faster day at Chestnut Hill. Although he hadn’t heard his exact number at the time of the interview, it’s probably wise to trust his instincts—they’re one of the top reasons he managed to lead a top-notch BC offense, and will also be a top reason for a team using a pick on him in April.
Featured Image by Alec Greaney / Heights Editor