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Simmons ready to go fast, stress fundamentals

New offensive coordinator ready to go

March 19, 2011 · Athletic Communications

Soon after his team played in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, Head Coach Rick Stockstill named veteran assistant coaches Steve Ellis and Willie Simmons as the new defensive and offensive coordinators for the Blue Raiders.

GoBlueRaiders.com sat down this week with Coach Simmons to talk about added responsibilities, and what he hopes to accomplish in spring practice sessions.

WILLIE SIMMONS: Offensive Coordinator. Starting his fifth year on the staff at Middle Tennessee, Simmons will be the Blue Raiders' fourth different offensive coordinator in the past four years. Last year, he was the passing game coordinator as well as coaching the running backs. Simmons came to Middle Tennessee from Clemson where he played quarterback while Stockstill was on staff there, and served as a graduate assistant at Clemson in 2006 before re-joining Stockstill at MT in 2007.

Here are his thoughts on such topics as replacing departed starters, breaking in a new quarterback, developing team leaders, and what he hopes to accomplish in the 15 days of practice allowed by the NCAA.

GBR.com: What kind of different approach will you take to spring practice now that you are the offensive coordinator?

SIMMONS: The first four years that I was here, I was only responsible for those six or seven guys in the position meetings. I had to make sure they were held accountable, that they knew everything that was going on, and what was expected of them. Now that number has grown to 40. My approach is the same as it has been since I have been in coaching, and that is to have a personal relationship with each and every player, to find out their strengths and weaknesses, what makes them go and what motivates them. It is my job as coordinator to motivate all 40, along with Coach Stockstill and the other position coaches. We want 40 guys out there that are hungry, that are enthused about the game of football, that care about their teammates, and that are all on the same page and share the same goals. Those goals are to build the team, to win the Sun Belt championship, and to do the things we preach to them about every day.

GBR.com: Already knowing all of the personnel should be a big advantage.

SIMMONS: Absolutely. The guys are comfortable with me, and I am comfortable with them. I have been here for the duration of all their careers. There is a familiarity with me, of my coaching style, my temperament, and the things I expect of each and every player. Coach Stockstill allows the assistants to get in front of the whole team a couple of times a year and talk to them, so that presence is already there. And things change each year. It is always fun to see who had matured the most, who has stepped into leadership roles, which guys won't back down when you challenge them.

GBR.com: Will the schemes be pretty much the same as last year?

SIMMONS: For the most part they will. Coach Stockstill, myself, Justin (Watts) and Buster (Faulkner) are all from the same school of spread, no-huddle offenses. It will be the same look that it has been for the last three or four years, but of course there will be a few new wrinkles here and there to take advantage of some of the personnel we have. My main focus is getting back to fundamentals, doing the little things right. At the end of the day, I'm not so sure the x's and o's are going to be the difference as much as attention to details. Things like not turning the ball over, not having pre-snap and post-snap penalties, playing with intensity, and enthusiasm.

GBR.com: Your two returning quarterbacks have a total of four games of experience between them. That has to be a primary concern for you.

SIMMONS: Finding out which one of those two guys (Logan Kilgore and Jeff Murphy) will win the job is one of our top priorities coming out of the spring. Of course, that is true anywhere there is a quarterback battle. I believe that Coach Faulkner will do a great job with those young men, molding them, getting them coached up, getting them ready to play. They will be tested early and often, and I think one of those guys will separate himself from the other. If they come out of the spring head-to-head, that is a great situation as well, having two guys capable of playing and leading the team.

GBR.com: Talk about your veteran offensive line as well as veteran OL coach Jimmy Ray Stephens.

SIMMONS: There is nothing like experience, and the experience that those five guys have up front is invaluable. In essence, we have five starters coming back. Although Mark Fisher is gone, we have Alex Stuart coming back off of an injury that kept him from playing last year, and he started two years ago as a sophomore. Colin Boss started all the games at center last year as a junior. The fact we have five starters returning has to make our quarterbacks feel pretty good. Those guys are all battle-tested veterans, and Coach Stephens does a phenomenal job with those guys.

GBR.com: The play of the receivers last year was not what it had been in the past. Will that be a focus in spring drills?

SIMMONS: Actually, our main focus will be to maximize our potential. We have talented players. We've done a good job recruiting. And whether that leads to an undefeated season, or that leads to 11 wins, or a conference championship, whatever it is we want to maximize our potential. We have guys that have the ability to be very good football players. It is our job as coaches to get it out of them. We have guys that run 4.3 40s, we have guys that have vertical jumps of 39-40 inches. I would not call our receiver corps a weakness. I will say that I think they are our most under-achieving position at this time, and I say that as a challenge to them.

For the last two years, we have been very efficient in running the football, but now we need to take that next step and be equally or even more efficient throwing the football. It is our job to figure out what they can and can't do, and put them in a position to be successful.

GBR.com: If you had to pinpoint one goal to achieve by the end of spring practice, what would it be?

SIMMONS: One word: Fundamentals. We want to be a fundamentally sound football team. When we line up against Purdue in September, when we walk off of that field, we want them to say 'that's the best-coached football team that we've ever faced'. From a fundamental standpoint, from an alignment standpoint, from a technique and effort standpoint, everything that we talk about starts with fundamentals. Turnovers and everything that happened bad to us in the past is turnovers, which is the result of poor fundamentals. A short route by a receiver, a bad throw by a quarterback, a poor technique block by a lineman or a running back which causes the quarterback to rush his throw. When we looked at the film, if we had better fundamentals, we could have eliminated half of our turnovers. So the main thing we want to accomplish in the spring is to improve our fundamentals. We want each guy on our offensive unit to understand the importance of doing everything right.

GBR.com: A good team needs good team leaders. Do you have an idea about who will emerge in this important area?

SIMMONS: I think some guys are born leaders; they have a knack for pulling people with them. Now some of them may pull people in the wrong direction, so it's our job to pinpoint those leaders and make sure they are pulling in the right direction. Other leaders have to be developed. You want your quarterback to be a leader.

Some are natural leaders. Some lead by example. Benjamin Cunningham leads by example. He is probably the hardest-working guy we have on this team. Sancho McDonald works hard every day, so they lead by the way they work. There are other guys, like Logan (Kilgore) and (Jeff) Murphy and Mike Williams, some of the older guys, that we would like to take a leadership role. We have had three or four guys step up in winter drills that have asserted themselves and stepped up as leaders, and that is encouraging. You don't have to be a senior to lead. You don't have to be a starter to lead. But somebody has to take charge of the offense, and tell them when things need to pick up.

It is our job as coaches to handle situations, but I think the team members are more effective if they can step in and say, 'Hey, this is not the Blue Raider way. That is unacceptable. Standards have been set and if you don't follow that standard, you are not going to be a part of us.' This is what you try to establish and what you want, and then everybody gets on board.

That is what leaders do, and I think we have guys that are more than capable of doing that this spring. Hopefully, they will step up to the plate.

GBR.com: Thanks, Coach, and good luck

Spring practice for the Blue Raiders began on Wednesday and will continue into early April. Weather permitting; the team will practice ten times in March and five times in April. The annual Blue-White Spring Game will be on April 9th.

Follow the Blue Raiders on Twitter @MTAthletics for continued updates.