Simon on USC

Tennessee senior linebacker Kevin Simon is 3-0 against Southern Cal quarterback Matt Leinhart.

He'd like to make it 4-0.

During his California high school days, Simon's De La Salle team beat Leinhart's 31-28 despite a 400-yard passing performance by Leinhart, Simon recalls. It was the closest game in De La Salle's amazing run of 151 consecutive wins, Simon said.

``I was like, Man, this dude is good,'' Simon said of Leinhart.

If Tennessee and Southern Cal play this season, it could very well be for the national championship in the Rose Bowl at Pasadena, Calif. Several preseason publications pick USC and UT to be 1-2 in the nation.

Simon can't think of a better way to cap off a college career.

``Man, if I could write out the rest of this year, that'd be the story book ending to a championship season,'' Simon said. ``It would be a special atmosphere.''

While Simon knew Leinart was good, he didn't envision the left-hander having the success he's had, leading the Trojans to a pair of national titles and capturing the 2004 Heisman Trophy.

Simon has always had a fondness for the Trojans.

``I grew up loving SC,'' said Simon, who is from Walnut Creek, Calif. ``If I was just a regular student, I'd probably have gone to SC.''

But Simon wasn't a regular student. He was a fabulous football player. He was everybody's high school All-American. He was the national defensive player of the year.

But the school he loved as a kid didn't make his top five list to visit.

``At the time, the football program wasn't what I wanted,'' Simon said. ``That's why I felt I needed to leave California and come out to the SEC and play against the best athletes in the country.''

When Simon was a high school senior, USC fired coach Paul Hackett and hired Pete Carroll. Simon already had his visits set and narrowed it down to UT, Florida State and Texas A&M. Carroll was hired in January.

``It's really too late to form relationships,'' Simon said. ``I talked to coach Carroll a couple of times but never had a legitimate thought (of attending USC). I didn't know who the linebacker coach would be. It would be hard to jump ship.''

Instead, he made the jump from virtually coast to coast.

But he's not surprised at the success the Trojans have had under Carroll.

``In California, you've got a gold mine, there's a wealth of talent,'' Simon said. ``Coach Carroll has done a really good job of keeping those instate guys and that in turn has gotten guys from all over the country to want to be a part of what they've got going on down there.''

* UT coach Phillip Fulmer said Simon, when healthy, could be as dominant as any Tennessee defender in recent years.

``It's an honor to be mentioned in the same breath with guys like Albert Haynesworth, John Henderson, Al Wilson, Raynoch Thompson and Leonard Little,'' Simon said. ``But it's all based off potential. I haven't done it yet.''

Oh, really? In 2003, Simon led the team with 115 tackles. He had 4.5 sacks, 6 tackles behind the line.

``My ankle really bothered me back then,'' he said. ``I had a lot of trouble dropping back in coverage. As I watch myself now, things are a lot more fluid and crisp.

``I don't even like watching film from my sophomore season. I just know I'm better than that. I feel like this will be the year I set out to have my senior year in high school, to come to UT and lead us to a conference championship and be All-American and the leader of the defense.''

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