Early this fall, UCLA junior linebacker Myles Jack suffered a season-ending knee injury, and decided to leave the Bruins’ program to focus on rehabilitation and preparing for the upcoming NFL Draft.
Last Saturday, Arizona State senior safety Jordan Simone tore his ACL against Washington, but the Sun Devil team captain had a significantly different outlook on his injury than Jack did.
While Jack’s circumstances as a potential first round draft pick are rare for a college athlete, his decision to withdraw from UCLA altogether lies at one end of the spectrum. As a two-year starter without realistic NFL prospects, Simone’s circumstances are more common than Jack’s, but his approach to injury was practically just as extreme, albeit at the other end of that same spectrum.
In lieu of having surgery as soon as possible, Simone is electing to wait until ASU finishes its regular season, so he can travel with the Sun Devils to face California in Berkeley on Saturday.
“I want to be there with my guys for the last game,” Simone said at an ASU press conference on Monday. “I thought about getting the surgery this week, but I just couldn't sit on the couch and watch my boys play and not be there and be able to help or be on a headset and talk to those guys and help coach them up. So, yeah, wouldn't miss it for the world.”
A two-time walk-on in the Pac-12, Simone transferred to ASU following his freshman season in 2011 at Washington State.
After earning a scholarship in the week leading up to the start of his junior season at ASU, Simone became a Pac-12 All-Conference Honorable Mention performer after logging 100 tackles and two interceptions.
Though he doesn’t possess the speed or sheer athleticism of other ASU safeties he’s played with like Damarious Randall and Armand Perry, Simone developed a reputation for his relentless effort and nose for the football.
Over the past two years, Simone became the epitome of the values ASU head coach Todd Graham preaches, and that’s why Graham wasn’t surprised by Simone’s seamless ability to swap the shoulder pads out for a coach’s headset against Arizona.
“He (Simone) was phenomenal,” Graham said. “He was talking to them in between every series, and he had a head set on, so he knew the calls. Just coaching them up and was very much involved and was a great asset to those guys during the game.”
Simone is the second safety ASU lost to a season-ending injury this year, as Perry went down in the second week of the season against Cal Poly. After the Sun Devils decided to convert freshman cornerback Kareem Orr into a safety to offset Perry’s loss, ASU made a similar decision this weekend by moving nickel cornerback Solomon Means to the field safety position.
Means made his first start of his career against Arizona, and Graham singled out Means for his strong play saying he would stick at the position for the final two games of the season.
Graham said much of the success Orr and Means had against the Wildcats was thanks to the preparation Simone put in during the week, and the time he spent coaching the pair up on the sideline during the game.
“Solomon's (Means) never played safety here, and he just didn't play, he played really, really well,” Graham said. “After watching that film, I sure wish I had thought about that a lot earlier because he is a heck of a safety. He'll continue to play there this week and in the Bowl game. Jordan (Simone) was just phenomenal in talking to him and talking to Kareem and coaching those guys up and keeping them calm.”
Just seven days removed from tearing his ACL, Simone didn’t plan on letting his injury impact any aspect of ASU’s final home game aside from his ability to play.
As the Sun Devils celebrated Senior Day and senior leaders were introduced individually prior to the game, Simone decided to ditch his crutches prior to walking out to greet his teammates and family.
“I didn't want to, when I get pictures and look back on that moment, I don't want to see me on crutches,” Simone said. “Took a little bit of pain walking out, but my adrenaline was rushing, so I didn't feel too much. It was a great time, just a real special moment.”
Saturday’s game marked the second consecutive Territorial Cup game Simone missed due to injury, which means ASU’s defensive captain never had an opportunity to play against Arizona.
There’s a certain level of disappointment in never getting to compete against a rival, but with the role Simone played in helping prepare his teammates and the investment he has in ASU’s success moving forward, his pain has been eased by staying involved.
“It's been rough just having it be my last year and not getting to play in the senior game,” Simone said. “I didn't get to play against U of A one time when I was here, which hurt. But everything kind of felt better after we whupped them this weekend. So I'm good.”
Longino Goes Back-to-Back
After Simone’s injury early in the second quarter against Washington, the Sun Devils were without three regular defensive starters as Orr and junior Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola were also sidelined with injuries.
The injury bug nearly bit senior Devil backer Antonio Longino as well, as Longino was questionable to play after practicing just four reps at full speed during the week.
But instead of being down an additional player on an already depleted defense, Longino persevered and turned in the most memorable performance of his career.
The former JUCO transfer set a career-high with 2.5 sacks in a gutsy, inspirational effort against the Huskies. Longino wasn’t just able to play, he was able to dominate, and that carried over into this week.
After earning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week, Longino garnered the honor yet again this week, as he topped his performance with 4.0 sacks against Arizona, the most by an ASU player since Derron Ware recorded 4.5 against Northern Arizona in 2006.
“I think he's (Longino) been -- he's an All Pac-12 performer defensively and has been phenomenal,” Graham said. “You look at the numbers that he's put up is pretty impressive. Not only that, I mean, I think he's been a big part of why we've led the league in sacks by almost ten. I think we have almost ten more than everybody else, TFLs.”
Longino consistently harassed Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins throughout the second half on Saturday, and his pass rushing abilities keyed a defensive unit that recorded 8.0 sacks and 11.0 tackles for loss against the Wildcats.
After starting at WILL linebacker last season and switching to Devil backer to help ASU maximize its personnel this year, Longino’s recent play makes him an appealing and projectable candidate for success at the next level.
“Tony's (Longino) had a remarkable year and a guy that, I think, has really positioned himself to play a bunch more football. He's a heck of a player. He's a guy that can play inside or outside linebacker, and now he's shown this year he can land on the end of the line of scrimmage and really play well. So I don't think we've had anybody that's developed and improved any more than what he has.”
Freshmen Making Strides
As players like Simone and Longino prepare to bid farewell to the ASU program, the next wave of play-makers is beginning to make its presence felt.
On Saturday, one of those players recorded his first career reception, as redshirt freshman Jalen Harvey hauled in a 41-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Mike Bercovici.
Harvey fought through an injury early in the season that prevented him from seeing the field sooner, but lately, he’s seen playing time on special teams while working his way into the rotation at receiver.
Though he committed two offside penalties against the Wildcats, Harvey did enough offensively to warrant praise from Graham in Monday’s press conference.
“I was impressed by him (Harvey), his route running, his ability to separate and get behind them,” Graham said. “That was pretty impressive -- not only that, he played well. He was a guy that graded out very high and a guy that I think is going to be a factor for us. He's going home this week, and this will be a big game for him this week as well. He's a guy that this next game and the next two games and the Bowl practice and all that stuff, he'll get better every day.”
Harvey redshirted last season and spent time on ASU’s scout team, which is where a handful of young players from ASU’s most recent recruiting class are beginning to hone their talents.
Bercovici said ASU knew Simone could be a special player based on the way he competed during scout team periods during Simone’s redshirt season, and he singled out defensive end Jalen Bates and Devil backer Bo Wallace as names to keep an eye on in the future.
“A couple guys that come to mind is Jalen, Jalen Bates, he gives us a problem on that defensive line,” Bercovici said. “Bo Wallace has been incredible. A lot of the guys on that scout defense is just -- they just work their tails off. It's going to be pretty special to see them suit up and make plays in Sun Devil Stadium.”
The development of ASU’s scout team players received a boost on Saturday when the Sun Devils became bowl-eligible, which will afford ASU extra practices to coach and evaluate its younger talent.