Young linebacking corps look to have a bright future ahead of them
As Antjuan Simmons first stepped onto the field Saturday, he could feel the nerves setting in. It’s a natural reaction — it would be his first college game ever.
His teammates, the older veterans he sought leadership from, told him to stay calm before the game and enjoy the moment. But still, it was a true freshman’s debut in front of a crowd over 70,000 strong.
So when Simmons trotted onto the field for his first snap ever, he just followed the advice given to him.
“Take a deep breath, relax, do my job,” Simmons said of what was going through his mind his first play. “Just the little things.”
Oh, and he balled out a little, too. He wouldn’t play too many snaps, the linebacking corps is stacked, it's one of the deepest positions the Spartans feature.
But he’d have enough time to show off some skills. As the Spartans sang the fight song after the game with the student section, Simmons headed into the locker room credited with two tackles, both unassisted.
He didn’t see the field just because of his athleticism or talent, though. There was a lot of grinding, some hard work in the film room done by the true freshman.
“He’s a guy that came in and honestly he picked up on our defense faster than I think anybody expected him to do,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “From day one, he watched film and studied his spot and really worked really hard to get into the rotation. That’s what he’s doing and he’s making plays.”
The linebackers are a deep position filled with seasoned veterans who have made their mark as leaders. Except for the starting MIKE linebacker — Joe Bachie. He’s a true sophomore and he doesn’t have nearly as much experience as Frey or junior linebacker Andrew Dowell.
He came up sometime this spring, a relative unknown to Spartan fans. He didn’t suit up his first six games in 2016, but played the rest of the way.
And he certainly made an impact against Bowling Green. He collected a surprising 10 tackles, doubling Frey and Dowell’s individual totals.
Despite the almost breakout performance, head coach Mark Dantonio said it was par the course for the sophomore. He stressed his athleticism, his savvy all-round nature. The head coach compared Bachie akin to a point guard in basketball or a shortstop in baseball, the known leaders in their respective sport.
“I think it’s what we expected. We knew he would be a dynamic player,” Dantonio said. “The guy can really run. He’s effective, very effective leader. Knows what’s going on out there.”
Interestingly, he compared him to a close teammate and a man just a few feet away from him on the gridiron — Frey.
It wasn’t necessarily about play-style or the leadership aspect, but more how the two prep for their upcoming game together.
“I think we both bring the same mindset to every single game and every single practice,” Frey said. “Honestly, we watch a lot of film together just because we’re going to be on the field together. It allows us to communicate back and forth without having to have full-on conversations. We know what we’re talking about.”
So often, the linebackers are looked to as the leaders of the defense. It helps that Frey is one of the two captains of the MSU squad.
Except that quarterbacking the defense might not have been as needed as once thought, Frey said.
“I think we did really well (from a leadership perspective),” Frey said. “I mean communicating with the safeties, but especially communicating with the young guys up front. I felt like they knew what they were doing. I think this is, by far, the guys up front know more than the guys in the past. They’re being coached differently.”
Simmons and Bachie are a crux of the youth movement taking over the Spartans. They're inexperienced, but certainly talented, as seen in their play. With multiple seasons of eligibility remaining, their growth will impact the future.
For now, as Simmons continues to vie for playing time as he garners experience, he won’t be fazed by the talent at his position. It is MSU, after all, the true freshman said. That much should be expected.
“I wasn’t surprised by any means,” Simmons said. “The coaches are going to make sure they recruit really talented guys.”