What do "G-Willis" and Joe Jackson have in common besides both being on the University of Miami defensive line?
New defensive line coach Jess Simpson mentioned them first Thursday afternoon after being asked to name some players who have impressed him since he arrived at Miami before spring practice began.
Both players' talents will be on display for Hurricanes fans at the spring game at 6 p.m. Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium.
"We’ve been really fired up about Joe Jackson, the way he’s responded to what we’re doing and how we’re playing,'' Simpson said about defensive end Jackson, a 6-5, 258-pound soon-to-be junior who led all linemen last season with 59 tackles, 11 1/2 tackles for loss, 6 1/2 sacks, six quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. "He’s playing really hard,'' Simpson added during his meet-the-media, post-practice interview. . "He’s been really tough out here. I’ve really enjoyed him.
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"G-Willis,'' Simpson said of redshirt senior Gerald Willis, "like Joe, has set a great example. I don’t think either one of those guys have had a bad day in 10 days. They come out here with intent, ready to practice, ready to work, ready to be a day better. When you have old guys in your room that have that kind of approach to ball, it makes everything a lot easier."
Willis is back from last year's leave of absence and scout-team designation. "Golly, man, he’s awesome,'' Simpson said. "So much fun, loves the game, great personality, great student. My first couple weeks here they were finishing mat drills and watching him work on the mats and watching him strain, just a real coachable spirit, really been into what we’ve been doing, been great to teammates, he’s got a couple of guys he’s looking after every day. So, man, I’ve just got nothing but praise for that kid."
Simpson also spoke about bringing a new competition, called "CT'' for "Compete and Tough," to the UM defensive line that he took from Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, who gave him his first opportunity with an NFL team last season. Simpson, known as one of the most successful prep coaches in Georgia state history, winning seven state titles in 12 years as the Buford High School head coach, served as a defensive assistant for Quinn after a short stint as defensive line coach at Georgia State.
He explained the CT program like this:
"Every day you evaluate a guy’s skill, his skill development, his knowledge of your scheme,'' during practice, he explained. "You also evaluate kids on their 'competes and toughs' the way they come out here and their prep, their urgency, their finish, their toughness, their strain, all those things, those intangible things you talk about as a coach. Just trying to find a way to grade it."
Simpson wouldn't list his top "CT'' players, only pointing to the veterans as leaders.
"I haven’t really done the averages,'' he said, "but we give them a score every day. What’s fun about our kids is they are competitive about everything and we grade everything. There’s production to everything, there’s winning and losing to everything and there’s a score posted every day for every area of every practice.
"Man, our kids come in and it means something to them. I have a hard time starting a meeting sometimes for them wanting to see their numbers and somebody else’s numbers. The positive. The negative. Where am I at? Coach, you missed one of my tackles. Just all the different production points we can give them for the different things they can do. There are a million different things they care about, and that’s a credit to [defensive coordinator] Manny Diaz and the culture he’s built.
Some other Simpson highlights:
▪ On 6-6, 240-pound redshirt junior defensive end Scott Patchan, who has overcome multiple knee injuries and also played some tight end last season: "Cool story. Scott has told me he’s had injuries and played a little offense. But Scott is a tough kid and he cares about football, and when the ball is snapped he’s got one speed. It’s fun to coach him and fun to watch him. He’s one of those guys that every day the light is coming on a little more and a little more for him, and I’m looking for big things out of him this summer and seeing him improving."
▪ On what his career trajectory has been like: “It’s humbling. I feel blessed. I wanted to get into college for probably the last five or six years as a high school coach, but I was coaching my sons. I have three sons and my two youngest played for me. I always said when I said no to jobs that I wanted to do personally that I might regret it, but I would never regret coaching my boys. The highlight of my coaching career for the rest of my life will be being on the grass with my sons and watching them grow up around ball and doing life with the coaches I got to hire that spoke truth and did life with them. Just a blast, like a cool ride.
"Then, a year and a half ago, Shawn Elliott took the Georgia State job. So, I think it was five days after Jake’s last game at Buford, in December, I took the job at Georgia State as the D-line coach. Eight weeks later, DQ called me and I just couldn’t say no to that. Then, a year later, here you are. It has been an interesting trajectory, but I’m one of those guys, I don’t think things happen on accident and I’m excited to be here working for [Mark Richt]. I’m excited to have the players that I’ve got. I’ve got great kids in my room and I’m excited about the culture we’re building in our room and about what we’re going to do here at the U.”