A Recruiting Story

Notre Dame's loss was Tennessee's gain. Tennessee's loss will be the NFL's gain.

Coming out of California, Kevin Simon was the national defensive player of the year. He had long dreamed of playing for Notre Dame. But he wasn't admitted.

His top five had been Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami, Texas A&M and UCLA. Scratch Notre Dame from the list. Add Tennessee.

``I wasn't even going to take a trip to Tennessee,'' Simon said.

But when he did, he was sold on the SEC and Knoxville.

Simon had a chance to play for the first time at fabled Notre Dame Stadium when Tennessee took a trip to South Bend, Ind., in November, The Irish prevailed 42-21.

``To be out there with all the tradition they have and to play on that field, it was a special feeling,'' Simon said. ``I wanted to soak it in.

``You got Notre Dame fans asking you for gloves and stuff. That would never happen at Florida and LSU. Their fans would probably boo you and say you suck.''

Simon would tell you that his senior season at UT sucked. Simon had never been part of a losing team until the Vols went 5-6 last year. In fact, Simon said he went about eight years - from seventh grade in 1995 to his redshirt freshman year in 2002 - without losing a game. Imagine that: Almost EIGHT YEARS without losing a game.

``De La Salle (High School in Walnut Creek, Calif.) was a special place, a special experience,'' Simon said. ``It was almost like a fraternity there, we were so tight and close knit.''

Simon was healthy for just two seasons at Tennessee - 2003 and 2005. He led the Vols in tackles each year. But going 5-6 was tough to take.

``All my life, I'd never played on a losing team - ever,'' Simon said. ``Whether it was baseball, football, wrestling, I'd never been part of a losing team. It was a new experience.''

Not one he'd like to revisit.

``I never understood how people could smile or laugh or joke around after losing,'' Simon said.

``A lot of times this year, we were disappointed but you couldn't get angry about the situation. It was like, `Man, the ball just didn't bounce our way this time.' Instead of walking around with a frown on your face the rest of the week, you've got to try to keep an upbeat mentality and you've got to bounce back.

``Don't worry, we're going to get Georgia the next week, Alabama the next week, South Carolina the next week. Just keep plugging away at the season. That's the only way you can look at it to try to salvage the season.''

Simon never saw a 5-6 record coming, not with 17 starters returning from a 10-win team that played for the SEC Championship and won the Cotton Bowl.

``It's a tough situation to talk about because I don't consider myself a loser,'' Simon said. ``I don't feel like I'm a 5-6 player or part of a 5-6 team. I'm on a team with winners, natural born leaders at a lot of spots on the team. It's difficult to leave the season and know we're not preparing to go to a bowl game right now.

``It's a weird feeling. I hope it's a feeling that never happens around Tennessee again. I think the guys are committed to putting their best foot forward, just like they did this past season. There will be extra motivation for these guys coming back because we do lose a lot of talent on the team.''

Despite Tennessee's record, Simon still contends the Vols were more talented than any opponent in 2005.

``But that doesn't always get you wins,'' he said.

Simon said he's excited about his future. He graduated Saturday. He's hired an agent, Octagon Sports from the Bay Area. He will train in Tempe, Ariz. He will prepare for April's NFL draft.

``My life is about to change,'' Simon said. ``I'm flipping one chapter of the book and turning the page to another chapter. For me, it's an exciting process.''

One NFL scout said he thought Simon was the best NFL prospect among the senior Vols. Yet, Simon has a history of injuries - two knee surgeries, a broken ankle - to overcome.

``I feel like my injuries put me behind the eight-ball against guys who had four full seasons,'' Simon said. ``I feel good about where I am and what I accomplished at Tennessee. Whether I go in the first round, second, third, or fourth, whatever team I land on, I'm going to be a good ballplayer for them. I'm going to stick. My goal is to start for whatever team I play for.

``Some guys are not going to meet expectations and some guys will exceed expectations. I'm hoping to be one of those guys that exceeds expectations.''

Before this season, Simon said he might be a strong safety in the NFL. Now, he says he's ``dead set'' on playing inside linebacker.

He said he needs to gain weight. He weighs 227. He weighed 235 in August but lost to 222. He struggled to gain weight during the season.

``I don't feel like I'm meant to be as big as I am,'' he said.

But he does feel like he's meant to play football. And he plans to prove it at the next level.

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