CLEMSON, S.C. -- Willie Simmons never ends a day without offering a prayer for his father.
Touch passes and two-a-days might cause restless nights, but Clemson's freshman quarterback always takes a moment to remember his dad. A freak accident robbed the sleek 6-foot-1, 185-pound multi-dimensional athlete of his father at the age of 6.
His aunt Sharon McNeal delivered the crushing news to him at his Quincy, Fla., home. Willie Simmons Sr., a mechanic, was servicing a vehicle when the jack slipped and he was killed.
His son didn't feel the full impact until years later. Willie Simmons Jr. has come to accept the loss but refuses to let go of his memories.
"Being 6, I didn't understand the magnitude of what happened," Simmons said. "Now, I try to do my best so he'll look down and be proud of me."
Simmons and the rest of the freshman class were put through their first practices at Clemson on Friday. The varsity players will join them Tuesday. The 18-year-old demonstrated his powerful right arm and mobility as the only quarterback in coach Tommy Bowden's first recruiting class.
Bowden's wide-open, up-tempo, no-huddle offense is similar to what Simmons ran at Shanks High School. He'll compete with senior Brandon Streeter and sophomore Woody Dantzler for the starting role.
Streeter started 10 of the Tigers' 11 games in 1998 but doesn't possess the mobility of Dantzler and Simmons. Offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez put his protege through timing and accuracy drills during a pair of 1:45 practices Friday. Simmons impressed Rodriguez with his fundamentals and knowledge of the system.
"I'm really pleased with the mental aspect (of Simmons' game)," Rodriguez said. "You can tell he's studying on his own. He's making the commitment to learn. That's what you want from your players.
"If they care, they'll make the extra effort on their own."
Dantzler and Streeter may have experience, but Bowden landed the blue-chip prospect with assurances he would immediately compete for the starting job. Bowden maintains the veterans enter fall practice as co-No. 1s, but the job is still open.
Simmons deflected any analysis of his debut performance to the coaching staff but was comfortable running the offense. He said the coaches have the responsibility of selecting the starter for the Sept. 4 opener against Marshall; all he can do is showcase his ability.
"I don't know right now," Simmons said. "I'll try to improve every day. I'll let the coaches deal with that. I felt I had a pretty solid first day."
During his senior season at Shanks High School, Simmons passed for 2,505 yards and 32 touchdowns while rushing for 510 yards and eight touchdowns. He fits the mold of former Tulane quarterback Shaun King, who passed for 3,232 yards and rushed for more than 500 last season under Bowden's direction.
Running an offense that often will send five receivers down field without a blocking back to protect the quarterback demands quick thinking and nimble feet. The quarterback represents much of the running game in Bowden's offense.
Simmons displayed his initiative by acclimating himself to the offense practice even began. His commitment is not surprising considering he had a 3.83 GPA entering his final semester at Shanks.
His mother is a math teacher whose analytical methods he inherited. However, once he steps on the field, Simmons says he becomes oblivious to outside distractions. He's come to terms with the tragic loss and now finds inspiration in his father's memory.
"I try not to think of it in a negative way so it won't affect my performance," Simmons said.
Jimmy DeButts can be reached at 706-823-3221.
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