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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
When it came to the cornerback position in the Big Ten in 2008, only two names mattered: Malcolm Jenkins and Vontae Davis.
Not only were Jenkins and Davis regarded as the class of the conference, but some considered them the top two corners in the country. Both men delivered solid seasons and were picked in the first round of April's NFL draft.
Without Jenkins and Davis, the face of the Big Ten cornerback is a mystery heading into the fall.
Traye Simmons plans to corner the market.
The Minnesota senior boasts strong statistics from 2008 -- four interceptions, 14 pass breakups, 18 passes defended, one forced fumble. He also has a catchy nickname, Big-Play Traye, which headlines his MySpace page.
Perhaps most important, Simmons oozes confidence.
"Last year, Malcolm and Vontae had the pressure on them to produce and perform week in and week out," Simmons said. "For me, it was more I had to prove myself to the league and just play like I know how to play. But this year, people respect me. I will be one of the top returning corners in the league, so it's up to me to live up to it.
"I feel I perform well under pressure."
Simmons might have performed as well as both Jenkins and Davis last year. He had more interceptions and passes defended, tying for 53rd nationally in picks and tying for fifth in passes defended (he led the Big Ten).
Earning second-team All-Big Ten honors behind the big two and Wisconsin's Allen Langford, Simmons nearly joined them in the NFL draft. But a disappointing draft projection -- Simmons was pegged as a fifth- to seventh-round pick -- brought him back to Minneapolis for his senior season.
"I was very tempted to enter the draft," Simmons said. "But the draft grade that I got was not high enough. I would have really had to build my stock up at pro day. And I wanted to come back and help these guys develop, especially the younger guys, and try to win a championship.
"We have something special this year. We didn't have it last year."
Despite his numbers, Simmons doesn't consider 2008 as one of his best seasons on the gridiron. The transition from junior college to Minnesota went smoothly, but he felt he could have had more interceptions and created more opportunities for teammates to make plays.
After a solid spring, Simmons is itching for training camp, where he'll get challenged daily by one of the nation's best wide receivers. Eric Decker returns to practice after spending the spring playing for Minnesota's baseball team.
"Anytime we have competition drills with the receivers, I'm always the first to go against Decker," Simmons said. "We're friends off the field. Even on the field we're friends, but we're out there competing."
Simmons will be without one of his best friends in the secondary this fall as safety Tramaine Brock won't return because of academic issues. Brock, who, like Simmons, came in from a junior college, likely will play at a Division II school.
Despite Brock's departure, Simmons has high hopes for the unit as Wisconsin transfer Kim Royston joins the mix at safety.
"We did a good job as far as jelling together in the spring," Simmons said. "I feel like more of a leader. Last year, people were trying to see how good I was, and then I produced. So I know this year, a lot of people are going to respect to me, or they could come at me.
"I need to have another strong year like I did last year."