East Carolina’s football record book is littered with the names of quarterbacks from the state of Florida.
There’s the great Jeff Blake (1988-91), from Daytona Beach, who orchestrated the historic Peach Bowl comeback against N.C. State. Delray Beach native James Pinkney (2003-06) and Lakeland’s Dominique Davis (2010-11) both rank among the top five in ECU quarterbacks in career passing yardage.
Winter Garden’s Travis Hunter led the Pirates in passing yardage for three straight season from 1987-89, while Longwood’s Rob Kass (2005-09) had some big moments under center for ECU before moving to tight end. And there’s also Kurt Benkert, from Cape Coral, whose East Carolina career was derailed by injuries before rebounding for a big senior year after transferring to Virginia.
The Pirates dove back into the Sunshine State for another potential game-changing quarterback on August 1 when Walter “Tre” Simmons III made a verbal commitment to play for coach Mike Houston.
Simmons joined Houston’s recruiting class of 2021 after considering other scholarship offers from Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Illinois, LSU, Marshall, Memphis, Old Dominion, Southern Miss, UAB, UCF, USF, Virginia, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
“East Carolina just stayed real with me the whole (recruiting) time,” Simmons said. “From the day they offered me, they never stopped talking to me and they always kept recruiting me, no matter what. Their coaching staff never lied to us. They said I was the only quarterback on their board. They weren’t going to take any quarterback unless it was me. It was either me, or nobody, and they got me.”
A 6-foot-2, 180-pounder from Oakleaf High School in Orange Park, which is part of the Jacksonville-metro area, Simmons is rated the No. 3 quarterback prospect in the state by 247sports.com.
Entering a senior campaign at Oakleaf that begins Sept. 11 against Sandalwood, Simmons has already been a varsity starter for three seasons and amassed 5,190 career yards and 41 touchdowns passing. He earned third-team All-First Coast honors as a junior from the Florida Times-Union after racking up 1,895 yards and 19 touchdowns passing and 611 yards and three more scores rushing for an Oakleaf squad that finished 7-3.
The junior performance was enough to catch the attention of East Carolina. The Pirates began showing interest in Simmons after the 2019 season and offered a scholarship on March 27. Once the offer was made, Simmons began researching the American Athletic Conference program and despite the restrictions in place due to COVID-19 he took a trip to Greenville with his family to visit campus in July.
“I didn’t know much about them when my recruitment started,” Simmons said. “Then I started looking into it and it just felt right. We went up there, me and my family, on our own to check out the campus and get into the buildings that we could get into without any coaches around. That was about two weeks before I committed. Campus was real quiet, but we loved it.”
The verbal commitment continued a tradition of Simmons’ family members playing college football. Walter Simmons, Sr., was a defensive end at Edward Waters College, an NAIA school in Jacksonville, while Simmons, Jr., was a defensive tackle for Bethune-Cookman.
The family connection to football prompted “Tre” to get an early start in the sport at age six. He started out playing defensive end and linebacker for the Pop Warner Sweetwater Ravens. When the team’s starting quarterback moved away when Simmons was about 11 he made the transition to quarterback.
“I had to work at it,” Simmons said of the move to quarterback. “I used to not be able to throw (the ball) 10 yards. But I just kept working, doing push ups and lifting dumbells until I got really good at passing the football.”
Simmons describes himself as a cross between Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks.
“I have the legs of Lamar and the arm of Russell Wilson,” Simmons said. “Being able to take over a game goes with the Russell Wilson part, too.
“I’m able to throw on the run and take over the offense. I only run if I’m sitting in the pocket and there’s nothing there. I can easily get down on the ground and get 10 yards or maybe break one loose for a touchdown. That’s nothing to me. But I can also sit back in the pocket and deliver the ball without running. Running is always second to me.”
Some of Simmons’ more impressive efforts during his junior season included racking up 300 of Oakleaf’s 396 yards of total offense in a victory against Clay. Simmons ran for three touchdowns (54, 2 and 40 yards) and threw for another in the triumph. He also produced 151 yards rushing on 20 carries and threw for 125 more and three touchdowns in a win against Sandalwood.
While Simmons isn’t familiar yet with some of East Carolina’s quarterback links to Florida, he has met in person another Pirate passer with a connection to the Sunshine State.
Soon after making his verbal commitment to ECU, his father told him one evening “to put on something nice and get in the car.” The two drove out to the Jacksonville area beaches where Simmons was introduced to former Pirate quarterback David Garrard.
Garrard, who played his high school football in Durham, broke 28 school passing and offensive records at East Carolina and started every game for the Pirates between 1999-2001. He was a fourth-round NFL draft pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars and earned Pro Bowl status with the team in 2009. After spending time with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, the popular Garrard signed a contact with the Jaguars on May 8, 2015, so he could retire with his original team.
“They know him at the place I train,” Simmons said. “The people there got in contact with him and sent him stuff about me committing to East Carolina. He got in touch with my Dad and it went from there.
“That was real right there. He’s really a great guy and I’m going to stay in touch with him.”
Simmons hopes to put together a career similar to Garrard at East Carolina. But first he’ll join a very competitive quarterback room in Greenville that could, by the time he arrives in January, feature a four-year starter in Holton Ahlers, redshirt freshmen in Bryan Gagg – also a Floridian from Sarasota – and Alex Flinn, along with true freshmen Ryan Stubblefield and Mason Garcia.