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Taking a closer look at Mizzou free safety/lightning rod Ian Simon

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Free safety Ian Simon has often served as a sort of lightning rod among the Mizzou fanbase. Let's take a closer look at how he can successfully tackle his senior season.

Ian Simon
Ian Simon
Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Mizzou enters this year in the enviable position of returning experienced talent across the defense. Even after losing star players like Shane Ray and Markus Golden, along with longtime contributors like Braylon Webb and Lucas Vincent, the defense should have plenty of guys with the experience and talent to make a play when it matters most. Arguably one of the most important, and overlooked, of these returning play makers is Ian Simon.

KC Star: Senior Ian Simon inherits, embraces role as leader of Missouri’s safeties

Simon’s task is incrementally tougher this season, because the Tigers’ defense is in transition under Barry Odom, a 1999 MU graduate and former safeties coach who returned to his alma mater as defensive coordinator in December when Dave Steckel left to become head coach at Missouri State.

Missouri also has a new safeties coach in Ryan Walters, who came with Odom from Memphis after Alex Grinch left for the defensive coordinator job at Washington State.

After making a name for himself with a game-saving play against Tennessee in 2012:

Ian Simon had a relatively quiet couple of seasons in 2013-14, tallying just one interception and eight pass breakups.

When watching Simon's film I saw a good player who, due to the nature of Mizzou's defensive scheme, didn't have many opportunities to make highlight plays. Simon should remain a solid free safety this year, but he may have more opportunities in Odom's defense.

The core philosophy of the defensive backs in Missouri's defense under Dave Steckel was to keep everything in front of them. At no position is this more true than at free safety (though in Mizzou's defense, the safety spots are nearly interchangeable). Against Texas A&M last year, watch how far Ian Simon drops before the ball is even snapped.

This strategy, dubbed by some as "bend-but-don't-break," limits a player like Simon's ability to make impact plays all across the field, but it makes it more difficult to get explosive pass plays behind the safeties. Simon's lone interception of the season came on a missed throw by Texas A&M quarterback Kyle Allen. While it was thrown closer to Simon than the receiver, that play shows a flash of his ability to make high-impact plays.

When evaluating a safety, three things tend to be the subject of the most focus: his footwork (with a focus on how quickly he's able to get to his spot), his ability to cover receivers down-field, and his ability to come downhill and make a play in run support.

Footwork

Arguably the most important attribute a safety has is his footwork. Having good feet is crucial for both pass coverage and run support. The first step (no pun intended) is getting to his spot quickly, and Simon does that well. On many plays, he is asked to cover the deep middle of the field, and he shows great initial feet to get there.

Watch how quickly his feet get going as soon as the play begins, along with the quick hip flexibility needed to change direction as needed. Where Simon can improve is how quickly he changes direction from back-pedaling to running forward. With just a split second better timing on his breaks, he'll improve his game drastically.

Down-field Coverage

Unlike in many schemes (Michigan State's comes to mind immediately), safeties in Mizzou's defense aren't asked to match receivers hip-to-hip nearly as often as they're told to do whatever it takes to stay behind the receiver. This is one of the most important aspects of the bend-don't-break philosophy, and it will be interesting to see if that changes any under Odom. Simon shows good ability to stay behind receivers, but can be susceptible to routes that cross his face and get someone open underneath him.

Again, this is mostly because of the scheme, but Simon can work on recognizing those and making a play on the ball. By walling off a crossing receiver, you can take away those kinds of plays, though it leaves you more susceptible to deep routes. Simon also flashes ability to cover underneath receivers. Overall, Simon's downfield coverage is good, and is very much a good fit for a scheme that asks him to stay deep and react less on routes until the ball is thrown.

Run Support

Simon's willingness to come downhill in run-support seems to be entirely dependent on scheme. In situations where he is positioned closer to the line of scrimmage, he shows good reactions reading the run play and triggering downhill.

However, when the play call requires him to backpedal immediately, he often struggles to accelerate out of his backpedal quickly and will sometimes find himself involved in the play (unless it's a big run coming his way).

With his already solid tackling technique, I see Simon being a definite positive in the run game with just a bit of work.

After watching his film, I actually ended up with a more positive outlook on Simon than I expected. I'd be surprised if he suddenly becomes the kind of guy to get a couple picks or force many fumbles, but he should once again be a solid back-line defender who won't make many catastrophic mistakes (fake field goal against Tennessee aside). That's all this defense needs from the safety position.