Vol foes getting 'Simonized'

Limited to four football games the past two years by a torn ACL and a fractured ankle, Tennessee linebacker Kevin Simon has bounced back to lead the Southeastern Conference in sacks (3.5) and tackles per game (12.7) this fall. Incredibly, his 38 total tackles through three games is 15 more than any other Vol.

All of this comes as a bit of a shock to Tennessee's coaches, Tennessee's players and Tennessee's fans. The one person who isn't surprised by Simon's remarkable productivity this fall is Kevin Simon himself.

''Not at all. That's really what I expect of myself,'' he said. ''I don't expect to sit back and let somebody else make all the tackles. I expect a lot of myself, and I'm not surprised at all. I said during the summer that a lot of people were going to be surprised at how good I am.''

What's probably most surprising about Simon's play thus far is the fact he's unhappy with it.

''I'm not playing as well as I'd like to,'' he said, ''but I'm taking steps every game, getting better and better toward being where I want to be.''

Simon believes his imposing tackle total is more a tribute to his mental skills than his physical skills.

''My best quality has to be my feel for the game -- seeing things, shaking a lineman, getting off a block and going to make the tackle,'' he said.

When asked if he's the player he was before the injuries, however, he shrugged.

''I talked to my high school coach (Bob LaDouceur of Walnut Creek, Calif.), and he said I'm better than I was in high school because the competition has risen,'' Simon said. ''In high school, no one was as good as me, and I was dominating. He said in the game against Florida, I was dominant.

''I might be better than I was in high school but I don't think so.

Simon might not be better than he was in high school -- he was ranked the No. 1 linebacker prospect in America as a senior -- but he's certainly smarter than he was in high school.

''In college, you have to be a better student of the game,'' he said. ''You have to recognize and see stuff, especially playing strongside linebacker. It's like playing rover at Florida State or strong safety anywhere else. There's a lot of things they ask me to do. You have to look at the passing game AND the running game. Most linebackers just focus on the running game and let the secondary take care of the passing game. I've got both responsibilities on my back.''

Simon has made no secret of his preference for middle linebacker but the Vols figure he can wreak more havoc on the strongside. Has Simon come to grips with that?

''I just like playing football,'' he hedged. ''It doesn't have much to do with what position I'm playing. If this is a need for the team, I'm going to fill it. That's how I feel about it.''

Tennessee's recent string of strongside 'backers is imposing. Al Wilson, Eric Westmoreland and Eddie Moore are all playing in the NFL. Since Wilson was hampered by injuries throughout his UT career, Simon is proving to be more productive than any of them. Still, he says he has a lot to learn about playing strongside linebacker.

''Those guys played safety in high school, so it was an easy transition for them to play strongside,'' he said. ''I always played middle linebacker in a 4-4 defense and never really had much pass coverage responsibility ... never had to come out of the box to cover receivers.

''I think it's a harder jump for me to move from linebacker to a strong safety-type position than it was for Al Wilson, Westmoreland and Eddie Moore to move from strong safety to strongside.''

Simon's inexperience at the new position cost him twice last weekend vs. Florida. Each time he was lured out of position, setting up a completion to Gator tight end Ben Troupe.

''The two passes Troupe caught on me -- where I really left him wide open -- they really made those plays look like running plays,'' Simon said. ''It looked like he was going to go block the middle linebacker, then he came out (on a pass route). That's something I'm going to recognize from now on. Hopefully ... not hopefully, I AM going to be better at it in the South Carolina game and all through the season.''

The prospect of Kevin Simon becoming even better has to be frightening for UT opponents and comforting for UT coaches. They knew he was good but never imagined he was THIS good.

''I think everyone knew I was an OK player, a guy who could be counted on,'' Simon said. ''I don't know if anyone thought I'd have the success I'm having.''

He paused thoughtfully, then continued.

''I don't know that I'm having THAT much success,'' he said. ''If I was making 25 tackles a game, then I could hang my hat up and say, 'OK, I'm doing a good job.' But I'm making as many mistakes as anybody else on our team.''

Defensive coordinator John Chavis is thrilled with Simon's play thus far but stops short of saying he's playing as well as any Vol 'backer of recent vintage.

''I wouldn't go so far as to say he's playing as well as anybody we've had,'' the coordinator said, ''but he's making a ton of plays. He's an outstanding athlete. There are a lot of areas he needs to improve -- the discipline and some techniques -- but he's going to get better.

''It's a different position (strongside) than last year (weakside), and he still hasn't played a lot of football. He's never been through spring practice, so he's green as a gourd.''

A very talented gourd, to be sure.

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