CLEMSON - Willie Simmons waited three years to become Clemson's starting
Through it all - be it his redshirt season, his spectacular game-saving
relief performance at North Carolina in 2000 or the Woody vs. Willie talk
that dominated the second half of 2001 - his demeanor never changed. He
always was the quiet, focused young man who put the team's fortunes ahead of
In a Hollywood movie production, Simmons' patience no doubt would be rewarded
with a sterling performance by both himself and his team. Clemson's offense
would shake the funk of 2001, and Simmons would be the reason; calmly
spreading the ball around to a talented corps of wide receivers and leading
the Tigers to win after win.
That's the Hollywood version.
The reality of the situation is that Simmons, after eight games as Clemson's
starter, found himself with a 4-4 record, labeled a fumbler by his coach and
unceremoniously benched in favor of redshirt freshman Charlie Whitehurst.
When Whitehurst responded with a record-setting performance in the Tigers'
34-31 comeback win last Saturday at Duke, Simmons' designation as the No. 2
quarterback became a permanent one. At least for the time being.
But instead of being bitter, instead of offering up excuses - of which there
are plenty (poor protection, dropped passes, etc.) - Simmons this week was
the Willie Simmons of the past three seasons:
Understanding, supportive and determined.
"I was happy for Charlie, he played a great game and I was proud of him,"
Simmons said. "It was hard to not play at all, but it's part of the business
that you play in. I've just got to try to do whatever I can to get my job
"Keep working hard every day in practice and do the things I need to do. Then
do a little bit more than I was doing. Not that what I was doing wasn't
enough, but do more. Try to make myself a better player, keep believing.
Believe in God for great things and be patient."
Head coach Tommy Bowden, perhaps not having the luxury of remaining patient,
still stuck with Simmons through a period of games when - under pressure - he
fumbled the ball with alarming regularity.
After a crucial fumble late in the Virginia game, Bowden publicly chided his
quarterback and warned that one more such gaffe would lead to his being
pulled from the game. Simmons escaped such indignity by hanging onto the ball
in the win over Wake Forest the following week, but wasn't as lucky when N.C.
State came to town.
Playing on Thursday night before a national television audience, Simmons was
pulled from the game twice after fumbling. Whitehurst fared no better in
relief, also coughing up the ball once in the 38-6 defeat.
But Bowden, apparently deciding he had seen enough, decided to start
Whitehurst last Saturday at Duke. Three school records later, the job appears
to Whitehurst's on a permanent basis, or at least as permanent as things can
be these days at Clemson.
"It was a very difficult decision. He's been an outstanding backup guy for
three years and has done an excellent job," Bowden said Tuesday. "I think if
a guy waits this long and you make a knee jerk reaction after the second or
third game it is not the right way to handle it. That is why after the
Georgia game we wanted to continue to play and improvements were made. He
made improvement for four straight weeks."
Ultimately, Bowden said, it became about the turnovers.
"Turnovers continued to happen so we made a change," he said. "I think there
is a fine line in how you handle that. Hopefully we handled it right as a
staff. You feel disappointment because of what he has invested. It's a high
profile position to quarterback a school like this and also in the style of
offense like this, but this isn't the first time this has happened either in
the NFL or college in a scenario like this.
"He has responded like I thought he would and surely it's not the end of the
line for him. I hope he doesn't see it like that."
Publicly, anyway, Simmons says he doesn't.
He said his approach to Saturday's game at North Carolina will be the same as
always, even dating back over the past two years - be ready to play.
"That's the only way you can look at it," he said. "Try to improve myself and
every aspect of my game, and be prepared if the opportunity presents itself,
through injury or whatever. That's how I have to look at the situation."