Now in an ironic twist of fate, Simon is suddenly the voice of experience, providing words of encouragement to Burnett who is out for the season with a torn knee ligament.
"Yeah I told him to be strong and that we¹re gonna have a good season next year,² Simon related of his conversations with Burnett. ³I told him that he just needed to rehab hard and get his knee better. I think, from what they have said, that his knee doesn't have the scar tissue like what I had, so the situations are a little different, but I just keep telling him to not get down and that he will be fine."
Simon came to Tennessee after a stellar career at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., in which the team built an unbeaten streak that has lasted a decade. A four-year starter, Simon earned all-American honors as a senior and was rated the No. 1 defensive prospect in the nation.
He hit a major speed bump on the road to college stardom when he suffered a torn ligament in the U.S. National High School All-Star Game, and post surgical complications postponed his much anticipated debut at Tennessee.
Now as the Vols prepare for their home opener Saturday against MTSU, Simon is thrust into the role of starter, replacing the player who was regarded as irreplaceable given the number of ways UT planned to use Burnett.
Simon steps into that role with question marks still surrounding his health and how close he is to being the player he was in high school.
"I am right where the doctors want me to be and where I want to be myself,² he said when asked where he is percentage wise. ³I am not sure I can put a percent on it, but I really feel the best overall as I have in a long time."
Simon knows that only his play on the field will truly answer that question and he¹s eager to give it his best shot before a sellout crowd of 107,000 Big Orange fans. Despite high expectations and stakes, Simon said he¹s not nervous at the thought of playing before a Neyland Stadium packed house.
"You know everybody has been asking me that and I am honestly not that nervous,² he said. ³The last time I was really nervous was when I was a freshman in high school. I fielded a kickoff in my first game and took it out to the 45 yard-line. Since then I have not really felt that nervous feeling in my stomach. I didn't last Saturday and hopefully I won't this Saturday. I feel I play better when I am loose."
That¹s something his teammates and coaches also recognize and that¹s been the advice they¹ve given him as he prepares for his first college start.
"Yeah Eddie Moore and Keyon told me that I needed to loosen up and play football,² he said. ³Not to be so tense and worrying about everything. Chief (John Chavis) has not been on me as much this week as he was during the spring and start of fall practice. I hope that is a good sign."
Simon didn¹t actually see the play in which Burnett was injured, but he knew the situation was serious after he was summoned into action.
"Actually I was getting some water and all I heard yelled was 'Five, Five!',² Simon recalled. ³So I ran out on the field not really knowing what had happened. I just figured that he would take a down or maybe the series to get a breath and then come back in. As the game wore on, it became clear that Kev wasn't coming back in.²
That just goes to show: in the game of football you never know when your number will come up.