Isaiah Simmons’ journey from skinny track star to possible Giants NFL Draft savior

Isaiah Simmons’ nickname wasn’t intended to be just as ironic as calling out “shorty” to the tallest person in a room.

But the most popular mock draft match for the Giants’ No. 4 pick used to be known as “Slimmons” in his high school hallways. It wouldn’t be the first guess now when looking at the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Simmons, one of the hardest-hitting specimens entering the NFL in 2020.

“It was a term of endearment, and it caught on,” football coach Chris McCartney said, recalling a 140-pound track-trained freshman at Olathe North in Kansas. “But that changed pretty quickly once he started hitting the weights.”

In fact, Simmons’ first intra-squad scrimmage tackle as a true freshman at Clemson was so forceful that teammates still talk about it. Simmons kept delivering punishment, and he will arrive at the NFL Combine next week looking to solidify his place as the No. 2 defensive prospect in the draft class.

“He’s got natural timing and punch to him,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables told The Post. “He can flat beat it when it comes to running, so he is generating a lot of force when he closes to the ball.”

Saquon Barkley was the versatile offensive weapon the Giants could not resist in the 2018 Draft.

Now? The Giants defense ranked No. 31, No. 25 and No. 24 for three straight seasons and desperately needs more athleticism and physicality. The unit has youth. It lacks productivity.

Simmons is a solution. He played more than 100 snaps at five different positions – inside linebacker, outside linebacker, slot cornerback, free safety and strong safety – last season, per Pro Football Focus.

Clemson’s back-seven meets daily as one collective, led by Venables, so Simmons did not have to choose a position coach. He won the Butkus Award as college football’s best linebacker.

“Big, long, athletic player who can be a chess piece for a team if you use him right,” an NFL scout told The Post. “People will draft him high because of all the dream traits, then figure out where to play him.”


Here’s a second bit of irony in Simmons’ journey: The do-it-all approach that scared off many college coaches from offering a scholarship to a three-star recruit “without a true position” is the same trait that elevates his draft stock.

Whereas the Giants’ Jabrill Peppers – a late first-round pick by the Browns in 2017 – is caught between safety and linebacker, Simmons could imitate Darius Leonard (Colts), Tremaine Edmunds (Bills) and Jamie Collins (Patriots) by rushing the passer, dropping in coverage and negating mismatches for coordinator Patrick Graham.

“The difference between Peppers and Simmons is that Simmons has a tremendous combination of height, weight, speed and explosiveness,” NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein said. “He’s not very instinctive as a linebacker yet, but that should come. I’d be shocked if Graham didn’t look at Simmons as an even more versatile version of Collins.”

Doug Catloth, Olathe North’s former track coach, liked to watch Simmons through the eyes of spectators gawking at the thickest, tallest kid in the lanes. He first met Simmons (and family) as a grade-schooler who “cried every night” at running 400 meters with his father. Maturity and weightlifting moved his limits to state championships by sophomore year.

“People were in awe,” Catloth said. “He filled up the runway and defied the laws of physics and big bodies.”

Isaiah Simmons Clemson NFL Draft 2020 Giants
Isaiah SimmonsIcon Sportswire via Getty Images

McCartney spent most of his 24 years at Olathe North as an assistant, but his first victory as head coach ended like this: Trailing by one score as the opposing offense ran out the clock. Until …

“The ball popped right into Isaiah’s hands,” McCartney said. “He just snagged it second-nature and took it 55 yards for a touchdown. I said, ‘Thank you, Isaiah.’ That’s how we broke down to go into the locker room after winning the game. He was that superior that he could do stuff like that.”

Or this: Simmons won a high school slam dunk contest against members of the basketball team by jumping from near the free-throw line over a row of eighth graders.

“I’ve coached a lot of kids over the years,” McCartney said, “but never had one like him who took his potential to the highest level.”


Simmons bounced from one cafeteria table of friends to another from day to day. He rotated between the long jump pit and the sprinter blocks.

But football took longer to appreciate that he cannot be contained to one space.

“He leads by example, but when he needs to talk he gives great speeches,” said Diondre Overton, Simmons’ Clemson roommate. “If you stepped on the field with him, you knew you were going to go hard and make yourself better.”

On a team filled with NFL prospects, Simmons and running back Travis Etienne separated themselves.

“They raced 60 yards: Isaiah won the first one and Travis got the second one,” Overton said. “You don’t often see somebody that big, who can hit that hard, run as fast as he can to cover so much ground.”

If the Giants draft Simmons, it could create an awkward reintroduction.

Simmons held several Big Ten and Big 12 offers – his older brother played at Kansas – but really wanted Arkansas. He reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds during his unofficial campus visit and promised head coach Bret Bielema an immediate commitment if offered a scholarship.

No deal. Soon Michigan and Clemson were on Simmons’ trail as his recruitment blew up in its final weeks.

Four years later, Bielema is the Giants outside linebackers coach and one voice who will share an opinion with general manager Dave Gettleman. Maybe it has changed.

What is Simmons’ best position? All of them, if you value versatility.

“With the limited roster size the NFL has, why wouldn’t you?” Venables said. “Not once did he ask to come off the field, even for a water break. Not even in practice.”


Simmons owns a black hooded sweatshirt with three white-lettered words: Humble over hype. He wore it around Olathe North just a few days before Thanksgiving.

A message to the next generation? Maybe.

The key to finding success in New York, if the Giants go in that direction? Certainly.

“He will be great in any setting,” Venables said. “He is a social guy who was raised right and is not intimidated or easily influenced. He is comfortable and confident in his own skin, and with a microphone in his face.”

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