LAWRENCE — Kansas defensive coordinator Dave Campo is a football man who made his bones as a defensive assistant for the Dallas Cowboys in their early 1990s zenith, parceling out schemes and advice to a consistent stream of stars and Pro Bowlers.
So it is both a blessing and a curse, perhaps, that when Campo searches for apt comparisons for his defensive players at Kansas, he generally throws out the names of players that are either already Pro Football Hall of Famers or decent candidates to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
Cornerbacks can be judged against Deion Sanders; pass-rushers may have traits similar to Charles Haley. And earlier this month, when Campo was searching for a guy to compare to KU junior nickel back Victor Simmons, he settled on former Cowboys safety Darren Woodson, a punishing playmaker.
It all can sound a little outlandish, of course. Simmons, a graduate of Olathe North, is a first-year starter on a KU defense that is attempting to claw out of the Big 12 cellar. He’s made just one college start. And three years ago, he was more known for being a do-everything high school quarterback in the Sunflower League. So, yeah, Darren Woodson?
“He’s a physical guy with speed,” Campo says of Simmons, explaining the connection. So all of a sudden, he’s more along the Woodson line.”
Start with the size. In the early ’90s, Campo once saw an undersized linebacker from Arizona State who looked like he had the skills to play safety in the NFL. That player was Woodson. Last year, his first at KU, Campo saw a college sophomore — 6 feet 1 and a chiseled 220 pounds — struggling to adjust from safety to linebacker. The player could run, hit and had the skills to cover — but he didn’t quite have a position. That was Simmons.
“He’s bounced around,” KU coach Charlie Weis says. “Is he too big to play safety? Is he too small to play linebacker?”
While Simmons has profiled as a tweener, a few developments in the last year helped him find a spot on the starting defense as Kansas travels to Rice on Saturday for its first road game.
After absorbing a back-alley beating in the Big 12 last season, Weis elected to go with a base defensive scheme that features five defensive backs — including a nickel back. To fill the nickel role, KU needed a player who could help against the run while also covering receivers. Simmons, armed with his athleticism and newly acquired linebacker skills, fit the description.
“I was unfamiliar with linebacker,” Simmons says. “But having a year under my belt of being a linebacker and the previous safety experience, it just made the nickel-back position … I guess perfect.”
Aside from the size, Simmons isn’t about to be described as Woodson-esque. But he did finish with a team-high eight tackles in KU’s victory over South Dakota last week.
“I think the light’s turned on for him,” Campo said earlier this month. “Sometimes guys, when they don’t feel like they’re going to have a chance to play a lot, it’s just human nature that you don’t get the most out of them.”
That might be the case, Simmons says. But the real change started to happen in the offseason, when he added 10 pounds of muscle working with KU strength coach Scott Holsopple. Weis would call Simmons a “man among boys” during fall camp, and from a basic eye test, it was hard to argue.
But one year after struggling to find the field, Simmons is most happy to be called a starter.
“I think the biggest difference between this year and last year is really confidence,” Simmons said. “I put on some weight, and I feel like I’ve gotten a little faster. So I feel like confidence has definitely been a part of it.”