Carolina Panthers

Overlooked RB Jalen Simmons scoots into NFL with Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers running back Jalen Simmons (38) had two opportunities to continue his career after the NFL draft, one in Australia and one with his hometown team. “It wasn’t a hard decision,” Simmons says.
Carolina Panthers running back Jalen Simmons (38) had two opportunities to continue his career after the NFL draft, one in Australia and one with his hometown team. “It wasn’t a hard decision,” Simmons says. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

After being overlooked throughout the draft process – pre-, post- and during – Jalen Simmons’ football cup suddenly started running over this past weekend.

Simmons, the former West Charlotte and South Carolina State running back, learned he had two opportunities to play professionally – one from an upstart league in Australia and another from his hometown Carolina Panthers.

“It wasn’t a hard decision,” Simmons said Monday after wrapping up his first full day in the NFL.

Simmons was one of six tryout players from the Panthers’ rookie minicamp the team signed Monday. The list includes two Charlotteans – former Duke tight end Braxton Deaver is the other – as well as receiver Miles Shuler, offensive tackle Jordan Rigsbee, cornerback Shaquille Richardson and linebacker Jared Barber of Mocksville.

Simmons, a 5-foot-8, 205-pounder known to friends and family as “Scoot,” celebrated by going to an all-you-can-eat buffet before jumping into the Panthers’ offseason program.

“I really didn’t do much. Went to Golden Corral with my family and just ate a good meal, because I knew it’d probably be the last big meal I could eat, because I knew I had to come to work,” Simmons said during a telephone interview.

It was a whirlwind weekend for Simmons, who was working at a youth football camp at St. Paul Baptist Church in Charlotte when he found out he’d be one of 35 tryout players at the Panthers’ rookie camp.

By Monday morning, he was changing into workout gear in the Panthers’ locker room alongside star players such as Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton, whom Simmons called “the man around Charlotte.”

A surreal experience

Simmons said that he tried not to be star-struck but that the experience of going from a camp counselor to an NFL player was surreal.

“I’m still in shock right now, having been through the first day,” he said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet, and I don’t know when it is going to sink in.”

Simmons played on West Charlotte’s JV team for most of his freshman season until former West Charlotte coach Mo Flowers made him the starting varsity tailback before the playoffs.

In the first playoff game, Simmons ran over a Providence safety at the goal line on a play Flowers says epitomized his speed, power and explosiveness.

“They met at the 1-yard line, and Scoot finished at the back of the end zone,” Flowers said. “The (Providence player) got the bad end of that deal.”

Flowers said Simmons rushed for 100 yards or more in four consecutive playoff games before West Charlotte lost to Independence in the semifinals. Flowers left the following season for a coaching job in South Carolina, but Simmons continued his tough running.

A slow college start

He committed to Duke before his senior year before signing with S.C. State. (Flowers says a defensive lineman ended up with Simmons’ scholarship slot.)

Simmons dislocated his shoulder during his sophomore season at the FBS school in Orangeburg. Before undergoing surgery, doctors discovered Simmons also needed surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his other shoulder.

He sat out the entire 2013 season but came back the following season to rush for 1,090 yards and nine touchdowns.

“I told Scoot he is the hardest-working player I’ve ever coached,” said S.C. State running backs coach Lee Chambers, who coached the Packers’ James Starks at the University of Buffalo. “It doesn’t matter what time it is, what the weather it is, when Scoot Simmons steps on the field, he’s there to work.”

Chambers says Simmons has good field vision and a strong lower body. And while he lacks top-end speed, Chambers said Simmons ran a 4.5-second 40 at the Bulldogs’ pro day.

Since he was an infant, Simmons has always moved well and with a lower center of gravity – thus the nickname.

“My dad gave me that nickname a long time ago. I probably wasn’t even 1 yet,” Simmons said. “I’d be sitting there, and he’d look over, and I’d be scooting along the living room floor to get somewhere.”

Donald Simmons, a longtime Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer, also gave his two sons discipline.

“He’s raised two boys the right way,” said Simmons, whose older brother Dontez played football at Lenoir-Rhyne.

Still a long shot

Simmons is likely a long shot to make the Panthers’ 53-man, regular-season roster, although that’s the goal he set Monday before arriving at Bank of America Stadium for what turned out to be a full, first day.

“It’s eye-opening, because in college, they give us a lot of time off, but here it’s like a normal job,” Simmons said. “Your day is scheduled out, which is good for me as a rookie. I won’t have any extra time on my hands to get in no mess.”

If the NFL doesn’t work out, there’s always the National Gridiron League in Australia. An official with the first-year league called Chambers on Sunday to see if Simmons were available.

Simmons also has told Flowers, the new quarterbacks coach at Campbell University, he might pursue a coaching career.

“Hopefully,” Flowers said, “that waits for a while.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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