Mr. Simms goes to Oregon.
That was one of the big headlines during the 2016 recruiting cycle ahead of what turned out to be coach Mark Helfrich’s final season.
Keith Simms, a four-star recruit from Washington, D.C., with 35 FBS offers, made the decision to fly with the Ducks on the West Coast instead of staying close to home at Virginia Tech or Maryland, or remaining in the Eastern time zone in the ACC or SEC.
Simms — after playing sparingly in Brady Hoke’s 4-3 base defense as a true freshman in 2016 and missing the 2017 season to recover from a knee injury — is happy, healthy and ready to help Oregon’s defense this year.
During spring practice, the 6-foot-2, 213-pound redshirt sophomore has been getting time at both inside and outside linebacker in Jim Leavitt’s 3-4 base defense.
“When I came in here, I honestly was not healthy and I wasn’t in tip-top shape,” Simms said of the transition from high school star to Pac-12 rookie. “I knew if I devoted a lot of time to my diet and working out that would obviously help me in the long run. Being out here in the spring, I just wanted to enjoy it because I haven’t been out here the last year.
“I’ve been in better spirits. I think that’s one of the reasons why things have been going well so far.”
During Leavitt’s only interview since signing a lucrative new deal to stay at Oregon, a media scrum that lasted just over one minute, the veteran defensive coordinator said he was “really proud” of Simms for working his way back following surgery to repair a partially torn patella and torn meniscus.
Being a bystander wasn’t easy for Simms, who said he had never missed time with an injury until last season.
“It was just a grind daily, mentally and physically, trying to get back and be out there with your friends, obviously,” Simms said. “I just learned how much I care for the game and how much I love it. It was frustrating at first because it’s one thing to learn (the defense) on paper, but it’s another to be out there kind of running through it. I feel like I’m always one to learn when I’m out there on the field, so it was kind of frustrating just to look at a piece of paper.
“Along the line somewhere, I just found inspiration and started embracing it more so than looking at it as a negative. Things got better.”
Oregon’s defense was much better last season than during Don Pellum’s final season as defensive coordinator in 2015 or Hoke’s lone season as a defensive coordinator.
The Ducks hope Leavitt’s rebuilding job will turn out a lot like his second season at Colorado.
In 2016, the Buffaloes finished seventh nationally in yards allowed per play (4.69), 17th in total defense (328.3 ypg) and 18th in scoring defense (20.5 ppg) en route to a South Division title and an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game.
“I think the next thing we’ve got to do is play harder, bring that physical aspect of the game back to Oregon, show everyone that we’re not all fancy and just about the equipment and stuff,” defensive end Austin Faoliu said. “We want to bring that dog back, so that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Simms’ teammates say his aggressiveness and physicality stands out.
“Keith’s a headhunter. He’s going to come hit you every play. He don’t care,” outside linebacker Justin Hollins said. “He’s a very versatile guy, he can play inside, he can play outside. He knows the system very well. During his time off he stayed in his playbook.”
Entering the spring, Simms was listed as Troy Dye’s backup at the middle linebacker spot. The emergence of redshirt freshman Isaac Slade-Matautia, coupled with the return of 2017 starter Kaulana Apelu, has made the competition at the other inside linebacker position one of the better battles this spring.
Hollins and La’Mar Winston established themselves as starters at the outside linebacker positions last season, and new outside linebackers coach Cory Dennison has also been impressed with the development of junior Bryson Young and senior Fotu Leiato.
Simms could fit into Leavitt’s plans all over the field.
“I’d say I’m a hybrid,” Simms said. “When I played inside when I first got here I was a lot heavier. I feel like the lateral movement was kind of hard. So when they put me on the edge … honestly, I don’t really care. I just want to contribute and be out on the field and make some plays and help this team win.”
Two years after leaving the nation’s capital to take a chance on the Ducks, Simms said he’s feeling right at home nearly 3,000 miles away in Eugene.
“It’s been different, for sure. The first 18 years of my life, it changed completely when I got out here,” Simms said. “But it’s been good. I’ve been able to find myself more and I feel there were a lot of things going on in D.C., so being out here in Oregon on my own, I just really got a chance to look at myself and look at things I enjoy.”