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The Mental Game: Isaiah Simmons Dives Head-First Into Learning All His Roles

Cardinals rookie linebacker knows prep comes first with NFL versatility

Isaiah Simmons enters the NFL knowing the mental part of the game -- especially for a player who could be used multiple ways -- is as crucial as the physical part.
Isaiah Simmons enters the NFL knowing the mental part of the game -- especially for a player who could be used multiple ways -- is as crucial as the physical part.

When he was young, Isaiah Simmons recalled, school came first – most certainly before sports.

"If homework wasn't done, I wasn't going to football practice," the Cardinals' first-round pick said, "so don't even ask what time we're leaving."

Such a concept was what the Simmons house was about. But Denise Simmons, Isaiah's mom, has one important clarification – Isaiah indeed never had to ask, because he never tried to skirt his schoolwork. In fact, one time when he was given the option, he declined.

"One of the administrators told Isaiah, 'Don't worry about it, I'll take care of it, you can go out and practice,' " Denise said. "Isaiah was like, 'You don't understand. I'm not worried about you. I'm worried about when I get home. I have to go and make up this test.' "

Isaiah Simmons, at 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds, can physically do so many things for a defense. It's the reason he was a top-10 draft pick.

But the mental part of the game – the part that let Simmons absorb a different role weekly in college, the part that will allow him to be the “eraser” the Cardinals want him to be, the part that should foretell a quicker transition to the NFL even with an out-of-the-ordinary offseason – is where Simmons has been prepping all his life to be an all-pro.

"When you get to this point, everybody is a good athlete," Simmons said. "Everyone is capable of doing the physical part. The guys who separate are the guys who are mentally sharp. I pride myself in that. I know many guys really don't, but I feel like the more you know, the better you are. The more I was able to know the positions and responsibilities, the better I was at playing, which is weird because you'd think it'd be a lot to handle, but honestly the more I'd do the better I was playing."

At the Scouting combine in February, included in the 15-minute interview the Cardinals had with Simmons was the player breaking down his assignments from games in the past season. He was as knowledgeable speaking about all his different roles as he was playing them.

This from a guy who bounced from position meeting room to position meeting room this past year, depending on which of the five positions the coaches needed him to play that particular week, not only memorizing what he needed to do but then performing so well he became a top NFL prospect.

"He's incredibly smart from a football standpoint," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "He played five positions and clearly wanted to execute at different positions for us, which demonstrates his knowledge and his diversity.

"But he's a unicorn."

Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph called it "amazing" how Simmons was able to adapt to every position. As the Cards continued to do their research, it wasn't the physical tools that would come up first but his football IQ.

That doesn't surprise his mom, who has a pair of Master's degrees herself. It is not Isaiah's draft status of which she is most proud but his degree in sports communication, which Isaiah obtained in December after just 3½ years. (He had hoped to beat out his older brother, who also got his degree in 3½ years.)

"When you talk about taking your smarts from the classroom and applying it to the football field, it's a testament to where he is now," Denise said.

When he was younger, Isaiah created a tabletop football game to play with his friends, at least when he wasn't actually out on the field playing football. He was a natural in other sports, like track – the Olympics were once a potential goal – and Isaiah attacked everything with the intent to master.

Put him on the grass and ask him to cover a tight end one week and rush the passer the next? There's no doubt Isaiah Simmons is going to take what was on the white board on Wednesday and make it work Sunday.

"He's always been a learner and a quick processor," Denise said. "And it goes beyond processing – it's always, 'I want to apply it.' He's always been a student of the game."

The letter Isaiah Simmons wrote to himself when he was in the fifth grade.
The letter Isaiah Simmons wrote to himself when he was in the fifth grade.

When Isaiah was 10, his fifth-grade teacher had all her students write a "Dear Me" letter to themselves – a letter the teacher would then return to her students as they were about to graduate high school.

Isaiah's letter notes that he eventually wanted to run track and play football in high school. And the 10-year-old dreams of having a "million doller manchene and to have a Ferrarie Enzo that's yellow with red seats."

But the final line stands out, all these years later: "My next dream is to be in the NFL."

Everything Isaiah has done, his mother said, has been "premeditated."

Math was always his favorite subject, something to him that came easy. "To me there is like a formula to everything," Isaiah said. "Formula to me is structure, and I'm a big structure guy."

Where all this leaves the rookie with the Cardinals – at least for 2020 – is still somewhat unknown. Coach Kliff Kingsbury said this week "the sky could be the limit" if the Cards have Simmons focus on one position "the majority" of the time.

That would be inside linebacker. But Kingsbury's statement allowed for nuance. There are still a lot of ways an inside linebacker can be deployed, and ways Joseph can tweak his schemes to have the player become the “problem-solver” he was drafted – and who he has proven -- to be.

"He couldn't do that many jobs with that much success if he wasn't intelligent," Joseph said.

Veteran linebacker Chandler Jones said he admired the coaching techniques of Joseph and his defensive staff, and those skills also will aid the process.

"I don't think (Isaiah) should have a problem," Jones said. "The physical is there, the talent is there. If I was a head coach, I wouldn't know where to play him. But a Vance Joseph defense isn't going to confuse you. He'll be fine."

Rookies joined the virtual classroom this week for the Cardinals, so Simmons now gets his first work inside NFL meetings. The coronavirus has put any on-field work on hold. Then again, Simmons always has known school comes first.

"I always believe the mental part of football is just as important if not more important when you're playing," Simmons said

Images of linebacker Isaiah Simmons, the Cardinals' first-round draft pick

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