By ASHLEY SCOBY
Most players in the SEC can point to the age of about 9 or 10 when they fell in love with football.
Not UK cornerback Eric Simmons.
Simmons, who did not pick up a football until his junior year of high school, is now competing to be one of Kentucky’s starting corners this season. If it hadn’t been for his father, Simmons might never have been in that position.
Prior to his junior year, Simmons had played basketball since he was about 8 years old. He had been in love with the sport since then and didn’t want to give it up for football – or any other sport for that matter.
“My dad just told me to try it out and he said I would love it,” he said. “I was playing basketball and I was just stuck on basketball and didn’t want to give that up. But he was like, ‘Once you start playing football, you’re going to stop playing basketball.’ That’s exactly what I did. I just loved it.”
Of course, loving a sport doesn’t always automatically translate to the field. But for Simmons, it essentially did.
“Going into it, I didn’t even really expect to play my junior year just because I was still nervous and I was new to everything,” he said. “But I started off playing the first games. Once that happened, I knew that it was a possibility. Small schools started talking to me and I knew that if I kept going, I could get bigger schools to come to me.”
Eventually, those bigger schools, including Kentucky, did come. But before that, Simmons had to commit exclusively to football, just like his dad said he would. Quitting basketball freed up a lot of his time, so Simmons started going to a personal trainer every day after school to prepare for the next football season. Together, Simmons and his trainer, John Lewis from Atlanta, worked on footwork, backpedaling and the mechanics of being a defensive back.
Fast forward a few years and now Simmons is a backup on one side of the defensive backfield, and is running with the twos in practice, according to cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley.
“Eric’s doing some good things. We’d like for him to be a little more consistent,” Ansley said. “He’s a guy that knows what to do. He’s a bigger guy. We’ve just got to get him playing faster and more consistent right now.”
The UK junior certainly does have size: He is 6’0 and 203 pounds, giving him near-safety size. But quickness is not something he lacks: Simmons has been clocked at a 4.38 40-yard dash.
For now, that raw athletic ability that helped him pick up football so quickly will serve Simmons well as he competes for a starting corner spot. Outside factors could play a part too: Cody Quinn is still sitting out of practice due to an ankle injury, and Nate Willis sat out of the scrimmage Tuesday afternoon because of a pulled hamstring.
According to Ansley, Simmons is not far from the coveted spot.
“He’s got just as much chance to start as everybody else out there. He’s just got to go out there and take it,” Ansley said. “We’re not playing any favors. If he’s one of the best two or three, then he’ll play a ton this year.”
Quite the jump for the guy who used to be “only” a high school basketball player.