Missouri senior safety Ian Simon vividly remembers walking onto campus in 2011 as a smallish three-star prospect from Legacy High School in Mansfield, Texas.
He was unheralded, unranked on national-recruiting services’ lists of the top prospects at his position, but eager to learn if only someone would show him the ropes.
Four years later, Simon is the most seasoned player on the back end of the Tigers’ defense. He has played in 37 career games, including 20 starts, and ranked third among MU’s defensive backs last season with 54 tackles.
Simon knows he’s now tasked with showing the ropes to younger players and serving as a leader in Missouri’s safeties room.
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“I do feel that, because I remember when I was a young guy and looking to guys like Kenji (Jackson) and Kip (Edwards),” Simon said. “I remember being in those shoes and being in that situation, so I definitely know those young guys are looking to me in that same exact way.”
Simon’s task is incrementally tougher this season, because the Tigers’ defense is in transition under Barry Odom, a 1999 MU graduate and former safeties coach who returned to his alma mater as defensive coordinator in December when Dave Steckel left to become head coach at Missouri State.
Missouri also has a new safeties coach in Ryan Walters, who came with Odom from Memphis after Alex Grinch left for the defensive coordinator job at Washington State.
Simon has become the go-to player among the safeties for the Tigers’ coaching staff as well.
“He’s done a great job with the transition,” Walters said. “Sometimes, I have questions about how they called things last year or how they fit certain plays up. We’ve been able to communicate very easily on what they did and what worked and what we can kind of tweak a little bit. He’s been awesome through that process. He’s a smart kid, and his experience shows when we’re out on the field in practice.”
Simon finished last season with a flurry, including a career-high 10 tackles in Missouri’s Citrus Bowl victory against Minnesota, but he’s far from satisfied.
“If I can find some kind of way to get better out here every single day — whether it be my backpedal, my eyes, vision and breaking, my coverages, communicating — that’s my goal,” said Simon, who has nine career pass breakups and two interceptions.
It’s a philosophy he’s also trying to instill in the players below him on the depth chart.
“My biggest thing is I want everybody to get better every single day …” he said. “I don’t think about too much like, ‘I’ve got to lead these guys.’ It’s more like I try to get the guys going, make sure they’re doing what they need to do and be enthusiastic with them.”
Missouri has ditched the strong- and free-safety designations in favor of right and left safeties, which should help against up-tempo offenses.
It will simplify how the Tigers’ secondary lines up, but it also means each player has to understand coverage responsibilities, leverage, keys and reads for both safety positions.
“Ian has grasped that better than anybody else in the room,” Walters said. “He’s been able to communicate to the younger guys on what to do. He’s another coach out there on the field.”
It’s a role he’s embraced as Missouri, the two-time reigning SEC East champions, strives to take the next step and win the program’s first conference title since 1969.
“That hit as soon as I got back from the bowl game,” Simon said. “As soon as I touched down in Columbia, it was real. I’ve been talking about that with all the seniors that this is our last go-round and we want to make the most of it.”