Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks optimistically said 340-pounder Elijah Simmons is on his way to having six-pack abs.
But defensive line coach Rodney Garner suggested Simmons, despite his recent weight loss, is still running on a sluggish dump truck engine in a Ferrari frame.
It’s two sides of the same coin in dealing with a player’s body transformation – a frequent and sometimes exhausting topic in spring practice. It can point to significant progress or invite coaches to push harder.
But the potential of Simmons — a big, athletic defensive lineman who could dunk a basketball when he was in high school at Pearl-Cohn — is worth rehashing the conversation.
“Go find me someone who’s (6-foot-2) and 340 pounds and have them do the things that he does,” defensive end Tyler Baron said. “Then you’ll see how athletic he is.”
PORTAL TRANSFER:Tennessee is targeting three key transfers. Here’s why they would choose the Vols
FIRST IMPRESSION:These freshmen are turning heads on offense in Vols spring practice
Why Vols need Simmons in good shape
The narrative of players transforming their bodies in the offseason can get old.
Overweight players lose a few pounds. Weaker players gain muscle and therefore weight. They are the two obvious outcomes from winter workouts for college football players.
And when rosters are updated for spring practice, weight changes suddenly get as much attention as regular-season stats like yards, tackles and touchdowns.
Some improvements point to breakout seasons. Others yield nothing and are quickly forgotten.
Simmons is just the latest test case in determining if an offseason diet leads to a greater impact on gamedays. But the Vols really need this one to work out.
Last season, UT ranked No. 7 nationally in tackles-for-loss per game. But it must replace Matthew Butler, the most durable defensive lineman in the SEC.
Simmons showed glimpses of being a dominant defensive lineman in four starts. But injuries and inconsistency watered down his overall impact from him to 11 tackles and useful gap-filling in seven games.
“Elijah is one of the guys that has changed his body,” Banks said. “And we think Elijah has a chance to be a really good player. The fact that his body has changed the way it has tells me he is headed in the right direction. ”
Why Simmons may keep the weight off
Simmons lost 10 pounds — from 350 to 340 — since the end of last season, according to the roster. But Garner said Simmons is “probably down 20 pounds, 25 pounds,” suggesting he was over 360 at one point, perhaps while recovering from injuries in the middle of last season.
Simmons lost the weight with a tried-and-true method.
“Doing extra work and watching what I eat,” he said. “I love fried food and burgers, but I gave them up. (I’m doing) some of the things I’ve been told in the past, but I’ve really locked into it so far this year because I’m trying to do way better for myself.”
Simmons sounds determined to keep the weight off and drop even more. If he’s in shape and not injured, the redshirt junior has NFL potential as a powerful, pile-driving nose guard.
“Where I want to be in the future (and) the things that I want to accomplish, that’s my main motivation,” Simmons said. “I want to help my family out in the future.”
Simmons still moving like a heavier player
Permit Garner a little skepticism since he criticized Simmons’ weight before last season.
“Obviously, he has to get himself in a lot, lot better shape,” Garner said in August. “Elijah has a skill set that he could be successful in this league. But he’s got to be more accountable to Elijah first.
“If you search our league, if you look at all the rosters and guys that are playing, there’s probably not many 350-pound defensive tackles in the SEC.”
Simmons responded with a short-term weight loss but then regained it after suffering multiple injuries. Garner hopes this change is permanent, but he’s not ready to celebrate yet. He wants Simmons to practice at a fast pace for longer stretches of time.
“Now we have to get his motor to mirror the weight loss. The motor is still running at that same (heavier) weight,” Garner said. “So the next thing is to get him to move like he’s lighter than what he was.”
Simmons part of reloading defensive line
UT has holes to fill on its defensive line.
Byron Young returns at Leo, a hybrid weakside defensive end/outside linebacker, after leading the team with 11½ tackles-for-loss and 5½ sacks. Baron has moved from Leo to strongside defensive end to replace Ja’Quain Blakely and Caleb Tremblay, who finished their eligibility.
Butler, a defensive tackle, led all SEC players with 726 snaps played last season, but he’s headed to the NFL. Simmons, Omari Thomas, LaTrell Bumphus, Da’Jon Terry and Kurott Garland must fill the void after serving as part-time starters last season.
“It is good to see that (Simmons) did have the discipline to do what they’ve asked him to do in the training room, weight room, conditioning, nutritionist and all that,” Garner said. “Now we just have to keep moving the needle in the right direction.”
Reach Adam Sparks at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @AdamSparks.