COLUMBIA – Missouri safety Ian Simon isn’t trying to be Kenji Jackson. He’s trying to be better.
Both players hail from Mansfield, Texas, a place where the spotlight shines brightly on high school football. Before Jackson, a reliable player who amassed 142 tackles and five interceptions over his final two seasons, became Missouri’s starting safety in 2011 and 2012, he starred on a smaller stage – the football field behind Mansfield High School.
- Quarterback James Franklin didn't start Thursday's scrimmage – which the defense won 18-4 – on a good note. He fumbled his first snap under center, with defensive tackle Marvin Foster emerging from under the pile of bodies with the football. A few plays later, Franklin threw a telegraphed pass to Gahn McGaffie, which safety Ian Simon jumped on and intercepted. The Tigers' quarterback bounced back nicely, though, later finishing a three play, 70-yard drive with a touchdown pass on a slant route to Marcus Lucas. He was 16 for 25 with 177 yards pass, one touchdown and one interception on the day.
- Freshman wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham also started slow, dropping his first target and receiving an ear-lashing from receivers coach Andy Hill for poor run blocking off the ball. He finished very strong, however, gathering a team-high six catches for 68 yards. The 6-foot-6, 220 pound receiver proved elusive in the open field, often tacking on yards after the catch.
- Receiver Bud Sasser made a statement with the first team offense, bringing in four catches for 63 yards. His connection with Franklin on a long go route down the right sideline may have been the most impressive offensive play of the scrimmage. After the catch eventually led to a touchdown, tight end Eric Waters charged at Sasser on the sideline, slapping him on the helmet and pads ecstatically. "That's how you catch the ball!" Waters yelled repeatedly at a grinning Sasser.
- The defensive line dominated the line of scrimmage throughout the game, pushing into the backfield and preventing the offense from establishing a consistent running game. Senior defensive end Brad Madison had two sacks, often beating freshman offensive tackle Jordan Williams off the ball. Sheldon Richardson was also disruptive in the middle, most notably blocking the Tigers' first attempt at a field goal.
“I grew up watching Kenji play, all the way back to eighth grade,” he said. “I saw him play through high school, so when he came here, I started paying attention to Mizzou.”
An emerging safety in his own right, Simon began garnering interest from Division I programs during his final few seasons at Legacy High School. When Missouri made an offer, he jumped at a chance to visit, knowing there would be at least one familiar face in Columbia.
“When I finally got my offer, he was my host on my visit, and he showed me what life is like here and how successful a player from Mansfield could be,” Simon said. “That was a big factor in me coming here.”
After joining the team last fall, Simon fell back into an old habit – watching Jackson make plays on game day. Because he was redshirted, he wasn’t eligible to make any plays of his own.
Still, he began to prove his worth behind the scenes. As a member of the scout team, Simon often covered two of Missouri’s most dynamic playmakers – T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew.
The results, at times, were unexpected.
“I took it seriously, getting to guard those two,” he said. “They didn’t like it when I made a play on the ball. Especially being on scout team, they weren’t too happy about it. So there were some scuffles. There were some words exchanged. But at the end of the day, it’s all good fun.”
While Jackson continued to shine inside Memorial Stadium, being named an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention in his senior season, the lesser-known Mansfield safety made strides on the practice field.
When spring practices began, Coach Gary Pinkel said Simon was floundering on the fourth or fifth string. By the beginning of Thursday’s scrimmage, however, he had jumped all the way up the second unit.
And if quarterback James Franklin didn’t notice him before, he does now.
On his second pass of the scrimmage, Franklin zipped a 10-yard out route to the sideline, intended for slot receiver Gahn McGaffie.
It found Simon’s hands instead.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound safety jumped on the route, cutting off McGaffie’s angle and snagging the ball away from the intended target. His teammates, including fellow safety Matt White, immediately mobbed Simon, slapping on his helmet and celebrating the big play.
Simon, who is pushing starters Kenronte Walker and Braylon Webb for playing time at safety, hopes more big plays come against SEC quarterbacks.
For Pinkel, the answer is simple: If you can help the team win, you'll see the field.
"He's trying to put himself into position to get rotated into play because he's good enough," Pinkel said. "We'll do that. If you're as good as a starter or we think you have the ability to help us win a championship in the SEC, then you're going to get in and play."
With four years of eligibility ahead of him, the future looks bright for Simon. After Jackson's graduation in the spring, it looks as though another talented safety from Mansfield, Texas, is waiting in the wings.
But while he has looked up to Jackson throughout his career in both Texas and Columbia, Simon makes it clear that he doesn't want to be another Kenji Jackson.
Simon has a future of his own.
“He has his style, and I have mine. I try to be my own player, my own person, my own man,” Simon said. “I just play the game the way I know how to play it.”
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.