MORGANTOWN — T.J. Simmons is the kind of football player who responds in a good way when pushed.
Coaches love it because it means a player can avoid taking heat-of-the-moment confrontations on the practice field personally, and so far this season the West Virginia University coaching staff has seen exactly that from their redshirt junior receiver.
When the Mountaineer receivers were not getting the job done with their blocking, first-year coach Neal Brown called Simmons out by name as a player who needed to improve in that area. Simmons didn’t pout or start exploring his transfer options. Instead, he went to work.
“The first couple weeks we didn’t block very well on the perimeter, and collectively as an offense we didn’t block very well,” Simmons said. “After the Missouri game we sat down and we took a different approach to it. We got a better attitude toward [blocking] and now we just want to be the most physical people on the field.
“It was a mentality, and we had to change that mentality and do what we were coached to do.”
Since that lopsided loss at Missouri last month, the WVU receivers have vastly improved their blocking and at least some, if not a large portion, of the credit goes to Simmons.
“Blocking, especially on the perimeter, is all about mentality,” Simmons said. “You’ve got to be physical and you’ve got to work on it to make sure you get your technique right, because if you get your hands outside and they get inside leverage, you can easily lose the block. You want to make sure you control the block, so you just want to make sure you’re in the right position.
“Receptions get the replays, but if I can get a big block on the line of scrimmage or down the field and set up one of my teammates to score a touchdown and they get a highlight, that feels the same as me scoring one.”
That approach and outlook is starting to rub off on some of Simmons’ younger teammates as well.
“T.J. is just real high-energy and he blocks as hard as he can at all times,” redshirt freshman receiver Bryce Wheaton said. “Doing that, and we see that on film, it lifts everybody up. We know we have to get to that level too.”
Simmons will likely be leaned on for more than his blocking skills Saturday when West Virginia hosts Iowa State (4 p.m., ESPN). The Mountaineers’ two regular outside receivers — redshirt freshman Sam James and sophomore Temple transfer Sean Ryan — both got hurt in last week’s loss to Texas.
Ryan had surgery Tuesday on what WVU coach Neal Brown called an “upper body” injury and is expected to miss at least a few weeks. James hit his head hard on the turf late in the third quarter against the Longhorns and his status remains uncertain, though Brown said he would be reevaluated later in the week.
Simmons is an inside receiver most of the time, but played on the outside last season and has moved there at times so far in 2019. He had his best game of the season against Texas with seven receptions for 135 yards and a touchdown in addition to blocking well on the outside for WVU.
“If you look at our last three games, we’re blocking better on the perimeter, and he’s set the standard for that,” Brown said. “That’s why I put him in a leadership role. He’s an older guy and also a guy I can coach and correct who doesn’t take it personally. He’s a guy you can push, and he understands you have what’s best for him in mind. I’m pleased with how he responded. He had some big plays across the middle.”
SO LONG, STEWART
Brown announced Tuesday that senior safety JoVanni Stewart has left the Mountaineers.
Stewart sat out the Texas game for “personal reasons” according to a WVU spokesman. Brown did not wait for questions during his Tuesday press conference about Stewart’s status and instead made the announcement during his opening remarks.
“JoVanni has made the decision to not be an active participant,” Brown said. “As a result he is no longer a member of the team this fall.”
Brown was later asked if there was a possibility of Stewart sitting out the rest of this season as a redshirt and returning to the program in 2020.
“I’m just dealing with the here and now, honestly,” Brown said.