OAKLEAF - Oakleaf High senior quarterback Walter Simmons, III., arguably one of the top sought-after signal-callers in Florida if not the United States, sees his goal as very simple.
“Stay focused, doing everything to stay ready for the season,” said Simmons, referring to the distinct possibility of scenarios that involve a shortened season, a shortened summer conditioning and preseason and even a possible no-season if things don’t go well with the CoronaVirus pandemic. “My job is to be a leader and let my guys see that I’m working hard for them and they should follow suit.”
Simmons, not long out of the shadow of dad Walter Simmons, Sr., and even Grandpa Simmons, knows that this season was to be, and may still be, his best effort to get to the playoffs.
“This team is the guys that have been with him since eighth grade,” said Walter Simmons, Sr., during a grass workout in Oakleaf. “Oakleaf has a ton of talent each year, but, I think the difference is Walter has had these guys by his side for at least four years.”
Oakleaf got to the region quarterfinals in 2018, but lost in triple overtime to Tallahassee Lincoln on an intercepted pass on the last play of the game. Oakleaf finished at 5-5 and earned a sixth seed in region 1-7A. The Knights benefited from a rugged schedule; losses to 4A region finalist Glades Central, 5A state semifinals Trinity Christian, 4A champion Raines and region 1-7A second seed Buchholz, to get into the new FHSAA playoff points system before the Lincoln loss.
Last year, Oakleaf finished out of the playoffs with a 7-3 record with losses to Columbia (21-19, 1-6A region semifinalist), Mandarin (34-33) and Bartram Trail (31-24) that spelled no playoffs.
Oakleaf was 2-8 in 2017 under coach Steve Reynolds who was replaced by former Clay and Ponte Vedra High coach Frank Garis.
“It’s up to me to be the leader,” said Simmons. “I’m not very vocal, but hopefully, I am going to do the right thing to make them follow me. Personally, I want to be stronger for my durability for the season. We always play a very tough schedule and I want to be ready to go four quarters every game.”
With the 2020 season and preparation on hold, area football teams are methodically putting schedules together with Oakleaf’s schedule already notes three teams on Maxpreps; Lowndes (a Georgia powerhouse 14-1 lst year and ranked second in Georgia, state runner to Marietta in a 17-9 7A championship game loss), Raines and Mandarin, thus far.
Simmons, with a ton of yardage passing and running in his three years, has been seen at quarterback camps; 6 Points in Jacksonville under the direction of Denny Thompson already this summer, and his dad’s impromptu gatherings for conditioning and throwing on random Oakleaf fields.
For Thompson, who has tutored area quarterbacks with names like Carson Beck (Mandarin state champion, U of Georgia), Jeffrey Sims (Sandalwood, FSU first commit, now Georgia Tech) and Mack Jones (Bolles, now at Alabama), Simmons has to enrich the players around him.
“The thing we look to improve on at 6 Points is, one, all these guys here have elite ability,” said Thompson, who noted that 60 of more of his clients are playing college football. “We are here to see what kind of energy are they bringing to their preparation. We want these players to be the ones that when they walk on to the field or into this facility (on Beach Blvd, Jax), the energy goes up. These guys should be the ones that make everyone else stand up, look and work harder to keep up.”
From Thompson’s perspective, Simmons brings a certain mastery of quarterback skills to the table.
“The thing with Walter is that he is so explosive anywhere on the field,” said Thompson, 43, a fixture in Florida as an elite quarterback coach for nearly 20 years. “We want to take his athleticism and enhance his ability to play quarterback. We don’t want guys like Walter to play quarterback any other way than how he plays it, just at a higher level. Too many guys take an athlete of his caliber and try to fit him into a quarterback body.”
Simmons sees his future, which includes nearly 20 NCAA offers around America, with optimism of his skill level.
“I know I have the athletic ability to throw and run,” said Simmons. “I just need to get into the playbook and learn everything that is going on everywhere on the field; not just understand my role as quarterback, but my role as a team leader.”