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The Bradsher Beat
Friday, October 12, 2007

By Bethany Bradsher

Bucs' new action hero steals spotlight

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

Travis Simmons was a freshman in high school with a dream of playing big-time basketball when he went to a family reunion in Orlando, FL. It was there that he met a second cousin who, even though only a college freshman himself, was already recognizable to many sports fans.

Cousin Reggie Bush made an impression on Simmons back then, even though Simmons had never played high school football. Now that he’s a major college player making a difference for the East Carolina defense, Simmons feels even more connected to his talented kinsman.

“It’s a great feeling to have a cousin like Reggie Bush, because he’s doing what I’m trying to do,” said Simmons, who came to Greenville from Tallahassee, FL. “He’s doing great things.”

Trying to build a family tradition, Simmons is hoping to do great things for the Pirates on a regular basis, and his first such feat was the turning point of Saturday’s decisive win over the University of Central Florida.

In the third quarter, with his team behind 31-24 and the Knights having just blocked an ECU punt, Simmons grabbed an interception and ran it 80 yards to the 9-yard line, where Rob Kass threw to Jamar Bryant to score the go-ahead touchdown.

Simmons’s interception changed the tide of the UCF game, and the victory gave the Pirates ownership of first place in the East Division. It was the kind of play his coaches knew he could and would make, and secondary coach Rick Smith even tweaked Simmons’s assignment in hopes that the right throw might come his way.

“He’s always had a knack for seeing the quarterback throw the ball, and he’s got great hands,” Smith said. “We just changed the coverage a little bit and put him in a position to fool the quarterback. And he played it really good — they thought he was playing deep third and he just sank it about 15 yards and settled and when they threw it into the flat, he just jumped on it and picked it off.”

Part of the coaching staff’s rationale for giving Simmons the starting nod last week had to do with academic shortcomings from the more experienced cornerbacks who have received most of the playing time this year, head coach Skip Holtz said.

For Simmons, it was a classic case of making the most of a golden opportunity. For Holtz, it was validation that placing principle ahead of competitive expediency can produce unexpected benefits.

“I had some academic issues that we stood up for this week,” Holtz said after the UCF game. “I just feel like some people aren’t making the kind of commitment they need to do to take school seriously. And so that opened the door for a guy like Travis Simmons to step up. I thought he stepped up. I thought he went out there and did a great job.”

As Simmons tells it, he ran out of gas near the end of his interception return, and the fact that he didn’t make it into the end zone has been a source of ribbing from teammates and coaches this week.

But even without the TD, Simmons gained the kind of confidence from the play that he hopes to parlay into more success in the next six games.

“I’ve gotten a lot of text messages, phone calls, people congratulating me on that play,” he said. “I don’t want to get bigheaded, I just want to get better, keep trying to improve and help the team get a win.”

Simmons was recruited by Smith because of the coach’s longtime friendship with Simmons’ high school coach at Florida A&M High School. But by the time Smith became aware of Simmons and his talent, ECU didn’t have any scholarships left for the upcoming fall. So the Pirate coaches asked Simmons to “gray-shirt,” which happens when players take the first fall semester off and come in for spring football and conditioning in the spring.

That unconventional entry helped to make him stronger and more prepared for Division I football, Simmons said.

“It kind of helped me out, because I had a chance to come in early before the freshmen this year, get into the spring and learn the plays,” he said. “It was a good opportunity to get up here early and get used to college football life.”

It turns out that in addition to being the cousin of a Heisman Trophy winner, the 5-foot-10, 179-pound Simmons is also a superhero.

“They call him Spiderman,” Smith said. “Because he’s small, but he’s quick like a spider. I’m excited about him. He may start again this week.”

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10/12/2007 03:42:17 AM

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