CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- Justin Simmons paused for a beat to think.
How has he grown since he got to Boston College two years ago?
Well like many kids when they get to college, he’s gotten a little heavier.
“My freshman year I was a 6-3, maybe 180 [pound] safety in the ACC,” he said after a rainy Wednesday practice at Alumni Stadium. “So I’ve had to put on some weight and I’ve had to be able to go down and shed a block from fullbacks, offensive linemen, whatever, to make sure I can get in the right position to make tackles.”
Through five games of his junior season, Simmons may be doing that better than anyone else on the Eagles. He leads the team with 29 total tackles, including 24 solo, and has chipped in an interception and a sack.
He’s just five stops shy of his total from 13 games in 2013, and well on his way to surpassing the 52 tackles he amassed as a freshman in 2012.
“He’s improved,” BC coach Steve Addazio said. “He’s become a better tackler. He’s playing more confidently. He’s still got a ways to go, like our team -- we have a lot of peaks and valleys right now.
“I see great growth for him.”
Simmons is from Stuart, Florida, a town with a population of about 15,000 on the state’s eastern coast, just east of Port St. Lucie. He was a two-sport star at Marin County High School, totaling 24 interceptions in football and averaging 15.2 points a game on the basketball team.
So how did he end up in Chestnut Hill? In part, because he wanted to live in a city and in part because he had a good rapport with the coaching staff during recruiting -- led by then assistant coach and now offensive coordinator Ryan Day.
“He said, ‘We’re not gonna offer [you a scholarship] until you come up so we can get a look at you,’” Simmons recalled. “So as soon as I heard that, I took the next flight I could up. Came out for the one-day camp, and loved it. Fell in love with the school, fell in love with the coaching staff -- love the new coaching staff now.”
Though he had offers from Purdue, Western Michigan and Illinois, Simmons said BC was always the most interested in him and the visit sealed the deal.
It’s worked out well for him so far. He played in all 12 games as a freshman, starting seven, and played in all 13 games as a sophomore. He has started all five games so far as a junior.
Fellow safety and defensive co-captain Dominique Williams called Simmons “one of the guys we can count on.”
“I think overall he’s gotten better as a player, as a teammate, as a leader, especially as a younger guy,” the grad student said. “I think he’s coming along great. Me and him, we have a great bond on and off the field. He’s someone I can rely on, and when things are going faster and stuff we kinda feed off each other. I think he’s doing a great job.”
When the coaching staff was replaced after the 2012 season, Simmons and the other defenders had a lot to learn.
“I definitely had to adjust to this new style of defense,” he said. “Our pass defense [before] was more Cover 4, Cover 2, bend-don’t-break kind of deal. This whole new defense with Coach Brown, it’s all about 11 hats to the football. There is no Cover 2, Cover 4, it’s all attack-style defense.”
And though it took a while to get used to defensive coordinator Don Brown’s way of doing things, now Simmons wouldn’t want to play any other way.
“I love it. It’s the best defense to play, in my opinion,” he said. “It’s all read -- you just go off of what the offense gives you. It’s great.”
Though he’s obviously doing something right to lead the team in tackles, the humble Simmons credits it all to the scheme.
“It’s all Coach Brown just putting me in the right places at the right time,” he said. “I know a lot of people think that a safety leading tackles on a defense is bad, but in our scheme of defense [it’s] all 11 hats to the ball, so I’m just as important to stopping the run as the defensive linemen and linebackers.”
That means it’s important that Simmons, like the rest of the young Eagles, continues to produce and to grow as the team enters the gauntlet of ACC play the rest of the way.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.