Sometimes the ball comes to you?
The question was put simply to Ian Simon after Missouri’s win Saturday over Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn. The redshirt freshman gave an equally plain response.
“Exactly,” he said. “Sometimes the ball does come to you.”
Sometimes, the man ahead of you goes down and you’re called upon. In fact, that has happened frequently for the Tigers this season. Sometimes, that call comes at a crucial moment, at a time when the game is on the line, deep into four periods of overtime, with hopes of postseason life on the line and with the opponent facing one more chance to even things up.
It was fourth down and a surging Tyler Bray needed to complete a pass for just three yards. And the ball was coming for Simon. He had a feeling it would.
“I had a feeling they were gonna come back to it,” said Simon, who entered the game for injured junior cornerback E.J. Gaines.
The Volunteers sent Zach Rogers on a similar route the play before. Simon spied him, but Bray didn’t throw it his way then. This time, he did. Simon was ready to pounce.
Like a missile honing its target, he launched all of his 190 pounds at Rogers and yanked down the arm of his prey. Not long after the game, Simon posted a picture on his Twitter account that showed what he described after the game as “my first big-time play in college football on a big stage in a big stadium.” In the picture, Simon is looking up, a few yards away from a falling Rogers, the ball on the Neyland Field turf. Incomplete.
The play allowed Simon’s team to come back onto the field and put the game away with a field goal.
“(To) throw him in that arena, in that game and how that game was developing and then, at the end, he makes a great play,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “It’s a great play. For a young player, it says an awful lot about him. Keeping his poise. That was huge.”
Simon’s outspoken teammate in the backfield, senior safety Kip Edwards, referred to the play as one as big as the land Simon hails from.
“He’s from Texas — that’s what Texas guys do,” Edwards said. “It wins the football game. It was bigger than Texas.”
The Mansfield, Texas, native has spent his early collegiate career working his way his up. In his first playing season coming off a redshirt year, he used the summer to show coaches what he was capable of. He has spent the season primarily filling special teams' duties.
“On every team, you got to know your role,” he said. “You’re not gonna start off as a starter. I knew I was gonna have to work my way up.”
He saw his most significant workload with the defensive unit Saturday. Pinkel said Simon has practiced hard and has carried a fine attitude throughout.
“(But) there's nothing like experience,” Pinkel said. “You got to get out there. You got to make mistakes. That's how you grow.”
On the three plays leading up to the pass breakup, Simon lined up improperly, defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said.
“Trust me, he’s got a lot of mental resolve,” Steckel said. “I actually verbally assaulted him. He made like three mistakes in a row before that, and then he comes back and shows his mental toughness and grabs that guy’s arm. It was just awesome.”
Simon laughed when asked about the verbal assault and hesitated to utter what was said in, as he said, the worst tongue-lashing he’d received from Steckel.
“I’ve seen Coach Steck chew out some really good players,” he said. “He’s always getting on them. So why should I be any different?”