Simmons (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) began his career as a cornerback, but his size and athleticism made him a more natural fit at the ram, which functions primarily as a nickel back.
As a sophomore in 2013, the Lehigh Acres, Fla. native started 10 games, and emerged late in the season, notching three solo tackles and a quarterback hurry versus Duke and then a pair of tackles for loss in the UNC’s Belk Bowl victory over Cincinnati.
He finished the season with 47 tackles and entered the offseason intent on elevating his play.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters following Thursday’s practice that Simmons was one of the players that “turned the corner” during offseason workouts, according to strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez.
“He was really special this summer,” Fedora said. “I think he saw the opportunity before him and what he could do. He’s really growing in the defense.”
The transition from corner to ram has been a smooth one for Simmons.
“I had to be a better cover guy and learn more about the opposing offenses schemes,” Simmons said. “But it’s really the same thing, because it’s mostly coverage.”
Fedora also viewed Simmons’ versatility and ability to make the transition as a tremendous advantage for his defense.
“It makes [associate head coach for defense] Vic [Koenning] a lot more comfortable with the things that he can do over there, because that guy is a hybrid; he’s a special player that can be put in a lot of different positions,” Fedora said.
According to Simmons, however, he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Koenning right away.
“Coach Vic and I started off a little bit rough, but that’s because we’re really alike in the way we think,” Simmons said.
Simmons’ attitude changed almost immediately.
“I have a ton of respect for Coach Vic because he wants to shut down everything,” Simmons said. “Our relationship has gotten very strong, and we’re really tight now.”
Likewise, Koenning has developed a tremendous level of respect for how Simmons conducts himself both on and off the field.
“Malik is a really intelligent young man that understands things beyond his years,” Koenning said. “I think he’s been thrust into some things growing up that have forced that. He’s done a great job all summer, according to our strength coach… He is a guy that you don’t have to stay on as much because he knows what do to do.”
Simmons has established himself as a reliable player and leader, so what’s not to like?
“He’s not perfect though,” Vic joked. “I told stuff to all of them today, it’s an equal opportunity butt chewing out there.”
Simmons added that there are elements that he’s working hard on to add to his game. When asked about if he would be attacking opposing quarterbacks more often this season, an anxious excitement appeared on Simmons’ face.
“I plan on getting sacks this year,” Simmons said. “No more quarterback hurries.”