LOS ANGELES -- It wasn’t much of a news item recently when former walk-on Hunter Simmons elected to rejoin the USC football team for the spring semester.
Simmons (6-foot-1, 240 pounds) had been a walk-on fullback for the Trojans since 2009, but hadn’t seen much game action and left the team in the middle of last season.
Yet when the Trojans took the Coliseum field for practice on Saturday, it was Simmons who was pulling double-duty at tight end and fullback while taking part in every play of the practice.
Multiple injuries at the two positions left the Trojans without any scholarship players available at either spot, which forced head coach Lane Kiffin to curtail the original plans for a scrimmage due to the lack of bodies.
Thankfully for the Trojans, the return of Simmons could not have been better timed. As a fullback who knows the playbook, he was also familiar with the basic responsibilities of the tight end, many of which are similar to the fullback role.
The plan was to have Simmons go with the first unit at tight end on Saturday. He had been taking some practice reps at tight end last week when Randall Telfer was the only healthy tight end, but once Telfer left practice on Thursday with a hamstring injury, the team needed Simmons to step in. He quickly agreed.
“I’m used to just running straight and hitting linebackers in the head so that part of playing tight end isn’t new to me,” Simmons said. “It helps so much that I already know the plays. I’m not the biggest or fastest guy out here, so if I know where I’m going it helps make things easier.”
Just as Simmons was preparing for his role as the first-team tight end for the Coliseum scrimmage, there was a twist in the plans. Starting fullback Soma Vainuku had an issue with his back while doing agility drills and suddenly the team needed Simmons in both spots.
“It was kind of frantic,” Simmons said. “I had a piece of paper with all the tight end plays and was making sure to have those straight when Coach Polamalu grabbed me and said they needed me at fullback. I just said ‘ok’. It was good fun.”
Simmons alternated between the two positions throughout the day and never left the field. Although the team didn’t scrimmage, they were able to get a lot of work done and his role did not go unnoticed.
“Hunter Simmons was a workhorse today,” USC running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu said. “He picked up the flag for us when we needed him. He took every snap, he lined up right every time and he knew what to do.
“Having him come back to the team when he did was a blessing. He’s a physical guy and a true Trojan.”
A former linebacker at Los Angeles (Calif.) Loyola High School, Simmons comes from a family with deep USC ties and is also a talented rugby player. He saw action in four games in 2010 for the Trojans but decided to leave the team during the 2011 season. After a few months away from the program, he realized he wanted to return, so he talked to the USC coaches, who were more than happy to welcome him back.
“It’s tough being a walk-on,” Simmons said. “It had started to wear on me and that’s why I left but -- as it turns out -- I just needed a little time to think about it and I’m glad I did because it put things in perspective.
“The timing of it couldn’t have been better with all of the injuries we’ve had. I knew we were light at fullback with Soma being the only guy, but I didn’t know it would turn out like this. I’m just here to help however I can. Fullback, tight end, special teams, it doesn’t matter to me because I’m just glad to be back.”
There has been one tough part of the transition back to the team and it was especially noticeable to Simmons on Saturday, when he got so much work.
“I’m probably the least in-shape guy out here on the field,” Simmons said. “I missed four months of conditioning and workouts and then basically got thrown right back into it. Today was great though because it will help me get back in shape.”