Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Sep4, 2010 UT quarterback Matt Simms carries in the game against UT Martin at Neyland Stadium Saturday evening.
KNOXVILLE — Matt Simms is from New Jersey, but he doesn’t mean to be rude. The Tennessee starting quarterback is just doing his thing.
While eating or playing video games with teammates, Simms almost always is one of the loudest people in the room — but he seems universally liked, despite continual prodding about his Northern upbringing.
“He’s from up North, so he runs his mouth a lot, but he’s a good guy,” UT senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz said. “I don’t think you’ll find anybody around here saying anything bad about Matt. He fits right in with the family atmosphere we have around here.”
But when he’s anywhere on campus except the football complex, Simms stays as unassuming as possible. By not drawing attention to himself, he hopes to decrease the inevitable, awkward moments that come from a bipolar fan base that worships its heroes and berates its goats.
“I do want to play well for the fans and be that quarterback they want me to be, but the opinions that really matter to me are my coaches’ and my teammates’,” he said. “On campus I don’t really wear a lot of orange and white stuff. I try to go incognito.”
The blond, 6-foot-3, 217-pound son of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Phil Simms has learned how to insulate himself while hanging out with anyone in Knoxville who doesn’t play with or coach him. He learned it the hard way.
Simms led perennial power Don Boscoe Preparatory High School to the New Jersey state championship game as a junior — his first year as a starter — but the Ironmen lost to future Southern California All-American and NFL star Bryan Cushing’s Bergen Catholic.
Losing was tough, but the next day’s local newspaper made it worse.
“Instead of saying Bergen Catholic won, it was a picture of me saying I lost the game,” Simms said. “That stuff really affected me and really bothered me when I was younger, because I didn’t really understand why.
“Now looking back, I do know why. It’s because of my name and we were playing in Giants Stadium.”
Simms’ dad was a New York Giants hero. Matt’s older brother, Chris, went to the NFL after an up-and-down career at Texas, ironically after initially pledging to Tennessee.
The youngest Simms returned to the championship game as a senior and leading Don Boscoe to the title. And now, after a journeyman college career that started at Louisville and continued to El Camino (Calif.) Community College, he wants to lead the Volunteers back toward national prominence.
He doesn’t care to listen to layman students critique his performance, however. And the armchair quarterbacks who cover Knoxville like kudzu don’t engulf him.
“I don’t watch much TV. No radio at all,” Simms said. “I’m a big CD guy. I’ve got a little Led Zeppelin and a couple of rap CDs in there that I don’t want to name because, I don’t know, it’s just random stuff.
“I just kind of zone out and hopefully don’t hit any of the students walking around campus.”
Coach Derek Dooley loves the attitude of his first UT starting quarterback.
“Matt doesn’t get affected, which is good,” Dooley said. “That’s important. He’s tough.”
Simms strolled into Dooley’s office after UT’s 31-17 loss to ninth-ranked Florida, when the quarterback threw two interceptions — one in the end zone — and received a frank assessment.
“You didn’t play well. You could’ve won the game for us,” Dooley said, as Simms told reporters a few days later. “And I totally agreed.”
Dooley described the meeting as a fair “discussion.”
“I just think it’s part of a relationship,” the coach said. “It’s just a hard deal. We’re both in positions where we’re going to get criticized. We’re going to get scrutinized, and so we’ve got to be on the same page internally. And that’s important to me. Sometimes the players are right. I listen to them and I go, ‘OK, that makes sense. We’ve got to do a better job as coaches teaching you.’
“There were a couple of plays out there [against Florida] where maybe we thought Matt didn’t do right, and then we realized, ‘You know what? We didn’t explain it well enough, because he was a little bit confused.’ I do that for our coaching staff, too — you know, quality-control us.”
Dooley deflects outside criticism aimed at his quarterback. He cites protection issues for the young offensive line, inadequate blitz pick-ups from the backs and route-running and route-recognition problems for the receivers as equal parts of the problem.
“We’re all contributing to the problem,” Dooley said. “We’re all doing our part.”
Simms showed flashes against the Gators, finishing 19-of-31 for 259 passing yards and two long touchdowns. Freshman receiver Justin Hunter was wide open for his 35-yard score early in the fourth quarter, but Simms avoided several rushers in a collapsed pocket and got drilled as soon as he released the ball.
“The sucker got hit a lot, and he got hit hard in that [Florida] game, and he kept coming,” Dooley said. “And there’s not many quarterbacks that do that. I think that’s a good trait. He’s got good physical toughness, he’s got good mental toughness, he’s got accountability, and those are great qualities to have.
“And he’ll keep playing better because of it.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said Simms “bounced back with a good week of practice” and should play well Saturday against UAB.
“Kids do that,” Chaney said. “The resiliency at that position is usually pretty common. They play average football, then they come out and they practice hard to get better. That’s what makes them quarterbacks, is they’re competitive people by nature. Matt is that way, so I look for him to come off that and have a really good ballgame.
“He prepares properly and works his [tail] off, so I don’t anticipate any issues there.”
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesrucker or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.