UT quarterback Matt SimmsSenior Matt Simms, Tennessee's new starting quarterback, speaks after practice.
KNOXVILLE — What happened was admittedly tough for Matt Simms, and the Tennessee senior was outspoken about it initially.
He lost his starting quarterback job for the Volunteers to freshman Tyler Bray last October, but Simms didn't have to go far for advice on how to make the most of a challenging situation.
He recalled the counsel he received from his father, two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Phil Simms, after UT's practice Tuesday morning -- his first since officially taking over for the injured Bray.
"He just said, 'Hey, if you really love this game, you're just going to keep battling and and keep fighting through it,'" Matt said. "All the things he reminded me in the offseason have paid off. I've improved as a player, and even though I haven't been the starter, I feel like I've grown as a person, too."
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound New Jersey native will start when UT hosts top-ranked LSU on Saturday afternoon. Simms started the Vols' first eight games last season. They won just twice against a difficult schedule, and Simms was sacked 28 times and hit hard countless others. He held the ball too long in the pocket at times and had more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (five).
When Bray took over and earned acclaim, questions and rumors about Simms' return to the Vols popped up, much to even his own surprise. Leaving didn't cross his mind, he said.
"A lot of people were kind of spreading that rumor and even asking me the next day, 'Hey, what are you going to do?'" said Simms, who transferred to UT from El Camino (Calif.) Community College after starting his career at Lousiville.
"I was shell-shocked, like, 'What are you talking about?' Obviously it's tough and you don't want that to happen, but like I said, you never want to leave a place like Tennessee for something like that."
Not only did Simms not leave, but according to accounts from his coaches and teammates, he never stopped working. He organized team workouts and embraced his role as a senior leader on a young team, even if he was the backup quarterback.
"It did look unusual, but I think it's just a reflection of Matt Simms and his character," said defensive lineman Malik Jackson. "'Even though I'm not the No. 1 quarterback, I still have to go out and lead these guys.' He's gone out there and tried to be a team leader. When [his benching] first happened, he was pretty upset like anybody would be, but he kind of just grew up. He's just been embracing it.
"He knows there's nothing he can do about it except go to work every day. I told him, 'You might get your opportunity,' and here it is. I think he's ready for it, I think he's been waiting for this time and I think he's going to show out."
Simms said his demotion was motivation to work even harder than he did as a starter, whether it was improving physically or paying more attention to the details of playing quarterback. That's the mindset he took in the offseason.
"I have a ton of respect for Matt Simms," defensive back Prentiss Waggner said. "He was a guy that was very mature about the situation that he was put in. I've never seen Matt complain; I've never seen his head down. Throughout the whole summer I think he worked as if he was the starter."
All that offseason work, Simms believes, prepared him for the fire he was thrown into when Bray broke the thumb on his throwing hand in hitting it against a Georgia defender's helmet last week. Simms overcame his own intentional-grounding penalty with third- and fourth-down completions and scored the Vols' lone touchdown in a 20-12 loss.
"I had confidence going into the game even though it was so sudden like that," Simms said. "I think the biggest thing was it gave a lot of my teammates confidence in me, just seeing that I was ready and prepared and I was ready to go as quickly as it did happen. I have confidence because I played well against a lot of good teams last year, and I hope to continue that."
Not including the game against South Carolina in which he was benched, UT didn't score more than 17 points in Simms' five starts against BCS-conference opponents. However, he threw for 259 yards against Florida and had the Vols on the brink of a big upset win at LSU.
"He's a really confident kid," left guard Alex Bullard said. "You look at him walking around -- he's our quarterback now, and you see him with that confidence. He kind of gives you the feeling that everything's going to be OK. He lost his starting quarterback job, and the way he's handled it has been unbelievable, how professional he's been and how encouraging he's been.
"He's definitely going to be playing with a little chip on his shoulder."
Said tight end Mychal Rivera: "Matt's always the same. Matt's a vocal leader. Ever since I came on this campus he's been a leader. He was doing really good today."
Simms must play really well for the Vols to have a chance against LSU. While the Tigers' daunting defense, which easily handled a backup quarterback in Florida freshman Jacoby Brissett in a 41-11 win last week, sacked him five times and battered him all afternoon, Simms was an efficient 12-of-23 passing for 121 yards and a touchdown run.
"I can tell you that Simms played very well a year ago against us in our stadium," LSU coach Les Miles said. "We understand that they're still very, very capable no matter who they play at quarterback."
Simms certainly lacks Bray's physical talents, but he knows the offense and has prior experience with the Tigers' defense. He was more of a game manager last season, so the Vols will have to find ways to help him. But the Vols say the confidence is there.
"I'm glad we have Matt and we don't have to shift to someone with no experience or no command of the offense," coach Derek Dooley said. "That is a bonus. I hope it pays off for us in the game. Matt's doing today what he's done every week. He's preparing well. He's got good command of what we're doing. We expect him to go manage the offense."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...