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Cardinals 'Unicorn' Isaiah Simmons Wasn't Always So Valued

First-round pick didn't get look from most top colleges

Isaiah Simmons turned into a star at Clemson, but he wasn't heavily recruited out of high school.
Isaiah Simmons turned into a star at Clemson, but he wasn't heavily recruited out of high school.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney calls Isaiah Simmons "a unicorn" for his rare ability to play multiple defensive positions, and the Cardinals can't wait to deploy him as such in 2020.

However, when Simmons was a high school senior in Olathe, Kansas in 2016, few college coaches even considered him a thoroughbred.

"I was just overlooked," said Simmons, who went from three-star recruit to the No. 8 overall pick in the draft. "The scholarships I had, I'm completely grateful for them – they were a blessing in their own – but I felt as if I deserved more of the powerhouses. I found myself sending out my film to all of the big schools, and I would hear some things back, (but) a lot of times I would just go ignored. I kind of feel like they missed the ball."

While Michigan and Nebraska were among the teams in pursuit of Simmons out of high school, he couldn't scrounge up an offer from his preferred school, Arkansas, and plenty of others turned him down.

Clemson nearly missed out, too, but when three of their defensive backs turned pro in January of 2016, defensive coordinator Brent Venables frantically searched for prospects. Serendipitously, Venables was a Kansas native who had strong ties to the area, and was told about Simmons.

"It goes to show you that it's better to be lucky than good sometimes," Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said.

Venables was immediately sold, Simmons liked the fit as well, and the marriage ended up being perfect for both parties. After steady growth, Simmons capped his college career with 104 tackles, eight sacks, three interceptions, eight passes defensed and two forced fumbles in 2019, famously doing it from nearly every position on defense.

"He's as impactful a player that we've had at Clemson," Venables said.

Simmons was a standout track athlete in high school – not a surprise considering his otherworldly combine exploits – and even did long jump for a stretch at Clemson. However, his body kept gaining mass, which ended his track career.

"I could have sworn as a kid I was going to the Olympics," Simmons said.

While the increase in size torpedoed one dream, it fast-tracked another. Simmons is now a freakish specimen at 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds with a 40-yard dash time of 4.39 seconds.

"I was always curious," Simmons said. "I would play around with my body weight, just to see how I could run at what weight. And up to the weight I'm at now, nothing's changed. I do believe if I was lighter I would obviously be faster, but my speed from when I was a freshman at Clemson to now, to this day, my speed hasn't changed, and I've done nothing but get bigger. I'm fairly surprised, more happy, because I've seen a lot of guys get bigger and get a lot slower."

While Simmons doesn't need to get any bigger for the NFL, Venables still sees untapped growth in his game. Clemson did a great job molding him, and now the Cardinals will have their turn at the pottery wheel.

"He's incredibly gifted, but his best football is still ahead of him," Venables said.

Wherever Simmons ended up in college, he likely would have succeeded, but maybe not to this extent. A less-creative defensive coordinator may have pigeonholed him into one position, whereas Venables unleashed him in a variety of ways.

Simmons never ended up with the mountain of scholarship offers he desired, but his landing spot couldn't have worked out any better.

"Luckily, coach Venables and coach Swinney took a chance on me, and the rest is history," Simmons said.

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