MORGANTOWN – The picture is one that will linger a long time because when he takes the helmet off, the football player you see is a whole lot more than just a face.
In this case, you get a chance to look into West Virginia wide receiver T.J. Simmons’ soul as he sat at table, a gaggle of media around him as he held his two and a half month old daughter Leilani Nevaeh Jo Simmons in his arms.
All of sudden, losing to Texas wasn’t all that bad for there was far more to live for than just winning a football game.
This is not to say that the birth of Leilani scratched away at the competitive fires that rage within him, fires that burn hot to make him succeed and be able to provide for a family once he leaves college football.
His preparation couldn’t have been better, for he learned first at the foot of the master, Nick Saban in Alabama, a coach who builds winners and does it the right way.
That is why when his coach at West Virginia, Neal Brown, felt he had to get a point across by coaching someone hard here in an effort to show his receivers how important it was to block, it was Simmons whom he singled out.
“That’s why I put him in a leadership role,” Brown said. “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.”
Simmons was up close and personal to see what made both Saban and Alabama tick.
Yes, he noted, Alabama had the best players but Saban gave them edge by treating them like people and athletes.
He brought what he learned with him to WVU.
“I think I brought a business mind set,” Simmons said. “At Alabama you had to know it was always next man up, anything could happen. You had to be prepared, make sure you focus on your preparation.
“You had to look at it like this game is a business, just like the NFL. You go [to the NFL] and do something wrong and you either get fined or cut. You take that mentality into college and you get prepared for the next level.”
You’ve seen it played out from afar. Jalen Hurts was a star quarterback at Alabama, won 26 of 28 games he started, but when Tua Tagliavoa came along, he took his job.
“It’s a game, it’s a business, as Simmons said, “anything could happen.”
And then, the FBS Championship game against Clemson, Tagliavoa struggled and Hurts came back in and made it competitive.
What Saban does at Alabama isn’t easy to do.
“It’s hard to come into college as an 18 or 19 year old and always think there are consequences to everything, especially when it comes to football because it’s always just been fun to you,” Simmons said.
“But when you think about coming into meetings, taking extra time, watching extra film, taking extra time to take care of your body ... well, you don’t think about that because you’re a young guy and got those fresh legs.
“When you get older, you hurt more and you realize if you see things on film you got a better chance to being successful in the game.”
Everyone at Alabama is capable. Everyone is ready so they don’t rebuild, they simply reload.
Just think about it this way. Simmons is starting at WVU now, coming off his best game of the year against Texas in which he set career highs in catches (7), yards (135) and scored a touchdown; Hurts is at Oklahoma, which well could battle Alabama for the college crown and he could challenge Tagliavoa for the Heisman Trophy, and sophomore VanDarius Cowan made his WVU debut last week an impressive one against Texas.
What they all have in common is they play the game right and Simmons has done so by not only catching the ball but with his rugged blocking.
“You look at the last three games and the way we blocked on the perimeter. He set the stage for that,” Brown said.
How did the improved blocking come around?
“The first couple of weeks we didn’t block very well on the perimeter. Collectively we didn’t block well,” Simmons said. “After the Missouri game we just sat down and talked and came out taking a different approach to it and wanted to be the most physical people on the field.
“We had to change that mentality and do what we were supposed to do.”
And that was what they did. Blocking became an important part of the wide receivers’ package.
“Receptions always get the replays but if I can make a big block either at the line of scrimmage or downfield to set up one of my teammates and make it a highlight, that’s the same as me getting that highlight,” Simmons said.
“If the running back can get to the second level, the man who is going to make the tackle is our man, so if we can make our blocks they can make big plays.”
What it comes down to is playing the game right, be it at Alabama or West Virginia.
“Whatever role I need to take, I’m ready to do it whether it’s catching a pass in the end zone or blocking on the perimeter,” Simmons said.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.