Best players in Clemson history: Linebackers

Best players in Clemson history: Linebackers

Football

Best players in Clemson history: Linebackers

Tim Bourret, Clemson’s longtime Sports Information Director, said he has only seen two true freshmen go from second or third team on the opening day of fall camp to starter by the end of the week.

Wide receiver Sammy Watkins was one and the other was linebacker Anthony Simmons.

When he first came to Clemson, Simmons wanted to be like the great linebackers that came before him. When he left after his junior year in 1997, he was considered the best and that is still the case today.

In his three years at Clemson (1995-’97) Simmons recorded 486 tackles, only 29 off the school record Bubba Brown recorded in four years from 1976-’79. The middle linebacker also recorded 52 tackles for loss, which is fourth all-time in Clemson history.

Anthony Simmons (1995-’97) is the only two-time First-Team All-American in Clemson history (File Photo).

Simmons, who played from 1995-’97, definitely left his mark at Clemson. He was just the second player in Clemson history to earn All-American status three straight years, including consensus first-team status in 1997 when he was a finalist for the Butkus Award, which is given to the nation’s best linebacker.

In his last season in Tigertown, Simmons recorded 158 tackles, 25 tackles for loss and had eight sacks. He even broke up four passes in those rare occasions he dropped back into coverage.

“He’s the greatest pure hitter I’ve ever seen in college,” said Reggie Herring, Simmons’ defensive coordinator and position coach at Clemson and now the linebackers coach for the Denver Broncos. “Against Maryland he hit a guy so hard on the goal line it was like a cannon had gone off.”

Clemson had its fair share of great linebackers in the day, such as Brown, Jeff Davis, Levon Kirkland and Ed McDaniel. But as good as they all were, none of them made the impact Simmons made from the moment he stepped foot on campus.

During his freshman year, the Spartanburg, S.C., native earned third-team All-American honors with 150 tackles, including 11 tackles for loss. In his sophomore year, he set a single-season record at the time with 178 tackles, including 16 for loss as he became a First-Team All-American.

After his junior season, he became the first Clemson player to be named First-Team All-ACC as a freshman, sophomore and junior, and was the first Clemson linebacker to be named First-Team All-American two years in a row.

One can only wonder what damage Simmons could have done had he not decided to enter the NFL Draft after his junior year. Simmons was picked 15th overall by the Seattle Seahawks in the 1998 NFL Draft and played in 87 games in seven years.

Honorable mentions:

Keith Adams (1998-2000): After being told he was too small to play college football, Adams signed with Clemson in 1997 and lettered for the Tigers in 1998, 1999 and 2000.  Starting in 23 games, Adams quickly became a star as he led the Tigers in tackles, sacks and tackles for loss in 1999 and 2000, while becoming a finalist for the Dick Butkus Award. Adams’ 16 sacks in a season is still a Clemson record as is his 35 tackles for a loss, both of which came in 1999. In all, he finished his Clemson career with 23 sacks, third all-time behind Gaines Adams and Michael Dean Perry. Like Simmons, he earned back-to-back honors as an All-American, including Consensus All-American status in 2000. The ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1999 had a Clemson record 186 tackles, a mark that still stands today. He also holds the record for career tackles for loss with 54.

Jeff Davis was an All-American in 1981 after leading the Tigers with 175 tackles on the way to the 1981 National Championship. (File photo)

Jeff Davis (1978-’81): Davis was known as a guy that made things happen, while also striking fear in the hearts of his opponents. Georgia running back Hershel Walker has said no one in his college or pro career hit harder than Davis. South Carolina running back Georgia Rogers said you knew it was going to hurt when Davis hit you. The Judge, as he was called at Clemson, was a First-Team All-American in 1981 after recording a then record 175 tackles in the Tigers’ first national championship season. He also set Clemson records for caused and recovered fumbles with four. Davis also holds the record for career caused fumbles (10) and recovered fumbles (7). The ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1981 finished his career with 469 tackles which ranks third on Clemson’s all-time list.

Ben Boulware (2013-’16): Boulware played a huge role in the Tigers’ run to the national championship last year. The All-American led the Tigers with 131 tackles, while also recording 11.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, four sacks, one interception and two passes broken up. He also added 12 quarterback pressures. Boulware became the first Clemson linebacker in history to receive a national award when he was named the recipient of the Jack Lambert Award which goes to the nation’s best senior linebacker. Boulware was also instrumental in the Tigers’ run to an undefeated regular season and to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in 2015. That year he was second on the team with 138 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and 29 quarterback pressures. Boulware was a two-time First-Team All-ACC selection as he tallied 352 tackles, 26 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He also set a Clemson record for a linebacker with 5 interceptions. He returned one of those interceptions for a touchdown in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl, the first Tiger in 24 years to return an interception for a touchdown in a bowl game. In the 2017 National Championship Game against Alabama, Boulware earned MVP honors on defense after he recorded 10 tackles and had two for loss in the Tigers’ 35-31 win. He was also Defensive MVP in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl and the 2015 Orange Bowl, joining former quarterback Deshaun Watson as the only players in Clemson history with three MVP honors in bowl games.

Levon Kirkland (1988-’91): Kirkland is probably the best athlete to play linebacker at Clemson. Though he was listed as on outside backer, he could play anywhere on the field and was good in pass coverage as well. He moved to inside linebacker at Pittsburgh after being drafted by the Steelers in 1992 and became an All-Pro. Kirkland displayed his athletic ability by recording 273 tackles on a defense that had nine players go on to start in the NFL. He had 40 tackles for loss in his career, including 19 sacks, which ranks second all-time among Clemson linebackers. Kirkland’s seven caused fumbles rank third all-time, while his seven recovered fumbles ties for first. He also held the Clemson career record for interceptions by a linebacker with four until Ben Boulware broke it this past season.

Ed McDaniel (1988-’91): A teammate of Kirkland’s, McDaniel terrorized opposing defenses. His 389 career tackles rank sixth all-time in Clemson history. He also recorded 30 tackles for loss, including 13 in 1990 when the Tigers led the nation in total defense. He led Clemson in tackles in 1988 (104), 1990 (109) and in 1991 (114). McDaniel tied Davis’ career mark of 10 forced fumbles. He also had 14 passes broken up and one interception in his four-year career.

Stephone Anthony (2011-’14): Anthony was one of the more athletic linebackers to ever play at Clemson. He finished his career with 330 tackles, 34.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and three interceptions to go along with 18 quarterback pressures, 13 pass breakups, five caused fumbles and one recovered fumble. He played in 52 games in his four years at Clemson, including 35 starts. Anthony led the Tigers in tackles in 2013 (131) and 2014 (90). In 2014 he was named First-Team All-ACC Linebacker after leading a defense that led the county in total defense as well as in 10 other categories. In 2013, he earned second-team All-AC honors and was the hero in the 2014 Orange Bowl win over Ohio State when he intercepted a pass in the final minute to seal the Tigers’ win. He also had a game-high 11 tackles against the Buckeyes to earn Defensive MVP honors.

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