Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms (2) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against LSU during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010. LSU defeated Tennessee 16-14. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
KNOXVILLE — Moments after tossing a game-ending, game-winning touchdown pass against UAB on Sept. 25, Matt Simms sprinted away from everyone else on the field.
Tennessee’s quarterback had had his fill of contact that day.
“I didn’t want to take another hit, even from my own guys,” he said. “I’d already gotten enough from the other team.”
And that was only the beginning.
Simms has been sacked 19 times in Tennessee’s first five games. That 3.8-per-game average is fourth highest out of 120 major college programs, and more teams than ever use multiple quarterbacks.
Sixteen of the 19 sacks have come in the past three games — six by Florida, five each by UAB and LSU. That doesn’t count the many hits after passes are released.
“Matt’s as tough as they get when it comes to quarterbacks,” senior tight end Luke Stocker said. “You have a ton of respect for a guy like that, to keep getting knocked down and keep getting back up and [being] totally unfazed. I don’t even realize half the time that he gets hit as much as he does, because I don’t see it when I’m out there playing, and he never acts like anything ever happened. Then I go back and watch film the next day and see how many hits he’s taking.
“I have a lot of respect for a guy like that.”
The junior takes a licking but keeps on flicking the football. And running his mouth.
Simms took a huge hit in the first half at LSU on Saturday, and the defender told him he’d be in the backfield all day.
The quarterback rapidly replied, “All right, so am I. I will be, too.”
Sophomore center Darin Gooch heard the comments but had trouble processing them.
“I’d never seen a quarterback talk to a defensive lineman like that,” Gooch said. “Most quarterbacks will just kind of shy away.”
Simms is definitely different in that regard. Gooch laughed when telling another post-sack story from this season. After one particularly vicious shot, Simms strolled back to the huddle and saw many linemen looking at the ground.
“Matt said, ‘Guys, I don’t care if I get hit. None of them are going to hit me hard enough to hurt me, anyway,’” Gooch said. “His attitude about it is just great. The kid is a real, true tough guy.
“He’s one of the toughest guys on this team, with how many times he gets hit and how hard he gets hit. He gets hit right in the face sometimes, and he’ll get up, smile, point at the guy and just take it head on.”
Simms isn’t sure where he developed his penchant for taking punishment, but he waxes poetically about “the art of taking a sack.”
The trick, he said, is to relax your body and “just kind of let it happen.”
“Most guys clench up real tight, but that’s probably the worst thing you can do,” he said.
Strength training helps, too. Simms doesn’t look big in pads, but he has nearly 220 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, and small doses of training in a mixed martial arts gym taught him toughness.
“This is a tough game,” Simms said. “No offense to the women out there, but that’s why men play it. Hey, I can take abuse, I can take the big hits. This is football, and that’s why I play this game. That’s just part of the game; it really is.
“I love that competitive aspect of it.”
Coach Derek Dooley doesn’t love watching his quarterback get knocked around like a crash test dummy, though. His offensive linemen aren’t big fans of it, either.
“It’s definitely personal when it’s your fault,” Gooch said. “That kind of thing, we’re trying to shut it down and have that stop happening. We’ve just got keep practicing hard, and it’ll go away eventually.”
Until that happens, Dooley said he’ll stay “worried about everything when we pass the ball from a pressure standpoint.”
“I mean, 16 times in three games?” Dooley said. “When you sack an opponent, there’s an 87 percent chance that they will not score points on that drive, no matter what down it is. And when you get sacked, you’ve got a 13 percent chance from then on to score points.
“Sacks are devastating.”
Moments after one of the sacks Simms took at LSU, senior wide receiver Gerald Jones — who said he was open all day but couldn’t get the ball because of the constant pressure — stormed back to the huddle and tore into the front five.
“I said, ‘Your job is to protect the quarterback. Ask yourself, are you doing your job?’” Jones said. “I talked to the running backs, too, because they’ve got to help out the line. The line is young, but they’re five games into it, so they’re not that young no more.”
Simms said getting angry won’t do anything to fix the problem.
He also said brighter days are ahead — if not for him, then at least for his successor.
“You have to understand that these 18-year-old kids are going against juniors and seniors who are getting ready to go to the NFL draft and be really good players at the next level,” he said. “For the talent and the defenses they’re going against, it’s truly amazing. It really is. Yeah, there’s growing pains. Whoever is the quarterback after me, good for him, because he’s not going to get touched in a few years, that’s for sure. They’re doing a great job, and each week they get better.
“Yeah, I get hit every now and then, but they’re doing an unbelievable job.”