Cotton Bowl Football

Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons kisses the Cotton Bowl trophy as he and his teammates celebrate their 30-3 win against Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semfinal game on Dec. 29. AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Isaiah Simmons sat in his Olathe, Kansas, home three years ago, browsing through social media.

It was January of 2016, the same time Clemson and Alabama met for the first time in college football's national championship game. It was the first of now four straight matchups between the teams in the College Football Playoff, and the third time in the national championship game.

Simmons was curious about this college 930 miles from  home with the zany head coach and impressive football team.

He liked what he saw.

“I used to see videos,” Simmons recalled this week, “and be like, ‘Oh, that’d be cool to play there,’ not thinking anything of it.

“Then, soon I got an offer.”

And that’s when everything changed.

Simmons, a quiet redshirt sophomore linebacker, won’t get the publicity others on Clemson’s defense do because his story isn’t particularly flashy. He hasn’t been featured on the cover of national magazines like the defensive line. 

But Simmons’ story is worth telling. 

Eight days before Clemson signed its 2016 recruiting class on National Signing Day, head coach Dabo Swinney had no idea who Simmons was.

“Had never heard of him,” Swinney said.

It was only after safeties T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse announced they were leaving Clemson’s program early  that Swinney began scrambling for safeties and picked up Simmons as a last-minute recruit.

Then, after two years in the program but only one season playing on the field as he redshirted his first year, Simmons decided this offseason that instead of playing safety, he wanted to play linebacker.

Brent Venables, Clemson’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, has always taught his players to think like he does on the football field.

In this case, the two were spot on.

“It was the offseason and I had come up here actually (to the football facility) and I was just going to see if we was here,” Simmons said. “I didn’t call him or text him or anything. I was just going to go in there and talk to him about it, and we just met in the hallway.

“He told me before I could even get to it and I was like, ‘That’s literally what I was coming to talk to you about. I talked about it with some of my friends and we just thought that would probably be a good move.’”

So it was decided.

Simmons, now Clemson's nickel/sam linebacker heading into the Alabama showdown on Monday night, is the Tigers' leading tackler with 88 tackles and second among the entire defense in snaps played, only behind cornerback A.J. Terrell.

Clemson's coaches love Simmons’ raw athletic ability and uncanny speed and admits that technique and scheme have been a work in progress. The pieces all came together for him in the Cotton Bowl when a crucial fourth- down pass breakup kept the Fighting Irish out of the red zone early in a game Clemson eventually dominated. 

On Monday, those one-on-one matchups will be at a premium and his coverage versus Alabama's dynamite playmakers will help write the narrative of the game. 

Clemson has gotten the most out of a kid from Kansas who learned about the Tigers' football program through social media.

“He’s a fun guy to coach. He’s still very young and raw at his position, but he really has bought into the coaching aspect and preparing and the preparation, the detail and the precision that that position takes,” Venables said.

“We’ll continue to kind of see him take 10 steps forward and two steps back and five steps forward and one step back and that’ll be part of that growth process for him there. He’s at a high-stress position, but I’ve seen him improve.”

Now, it’s all coming together on college football's biggest stage.

Follow Grace Raynor on Twitter @gmraynor

Grace is the Post and Courier's Clemson reporter. She graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in journalism.