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Ready or not, Simon now elder statesman

8/17/2012

The clock has sped up for the development of LSU cornerback Tharold Simon.

Like the steady line of Tiger stars at cornerback in recent years, Simon was supposed to enjoy a season being the "other" starter next to the superstar. He would start for the first time this season while lined up opposite Tyrann Mathieu. From there, he'd be "the man" next year.

But with Mathieu getting kicked off the team last week, the junior from Eunice, La., will have to instead be ready to be the leader of the cornerbacks.

"Even when he was here, I was still a leader," Simon said. "The only thing is, just teaching them a lot more and keep drilling in their head that they really have to be on the field a lot this year."

"They" are the woefully young cornerbacks that now surround Simon at the position. Jalen Collins, a redshirt freshman, is the only other cornerback who was in the program last year. Jalen Mills, Derrick Raymond, Dwayne Thomas and Kavahra Holmes, a recently converted wide receiver, are true freshmen.

That makes Simon, by comparison to his mates at the position, a grizzled veteran despite never having been a starter. He did emerge as a much-used third cornerback last season, getting nearly a starter's playing time by coming in games to play corner in the Tigers' nickel package. His emergence as a reliable coverage player -- he had two interceptions and broke up 10 passes -- allowed LSU to use Mathieu as a nickel back on passing downs, a position where he was particular effective.

Since the end of last season, LSU has lost five underclassmen in the secondary including Mathieu and Morris Claiborne, who won the Thorpe Award as the nation's top corner, then left after his junior season to be picked in the first-round of the NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He was the second straight Tigers corner to go in the first round after Patrick Peterson (Arizona) in 2011.

In 2010, Mathieu had the luxury of being eased into the rotation as a true freshman as a third cornerback behind Peterson and Claiborne while Claiborne was able to develop that season as the No. 2 cornerback. Peterson, meanwhile basked in the spotlight as the 2010 Thorpe Award winner.

Simon will have to skip a step in that progression if he's going to keep LSU's DBU tradition alive. Certainly, he has the tools.

Simon was a rising star last season despite technically not being a starter. At 6-foot-3, he's one of the tallest cornerbacks in college football, a trait that is becoming more valuable with offenses so infatuated with bigger wide receivers. Simon's the rare player at his height blessed with a cornerback's prerequisite loose hips that allow him to quickly change directions to run with a receiver.

By not getting left behind on a receiver's cut, he's able to use his length to his advantage. While quicker receivers might gain a step on Simon, his teammates say they don't get open enough to escape Simon's reach.

"You think the receiver is open," said quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who throws against Simon daily at practice, "but then this lanky arm just comes out of nowhere and gets it."

Like the young players he must mentor this season, Simon got the opportunity to shine as a true freshman. He hopes this year's youngsters take advantage of their chance the same way he did.

Injuries forced him into extensive playing time in the Tigers' Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M that season. He responded by breaking up two passes and getting his first career interception. It was a banner day for true freshmen as Simon and classmates Eric Reid, now LSU's starting free safety, and Mathieu all had big days.

Defensive coordinator John Chavis "always pounds that [Cotton Bowl] into guys' heads," Simon said. "We had four turnovers that day and they were all created by freshmen."

After that Cotton Bowl, the talent in LSU's secondary seemed endless for the foreseeable. Three true freshmen played so well for a team that was also returning players like Claiborne and Brandon Taylor. That thought was reinforced in last year's NFL draft when not only were Claiborne and Taylor draft, but Ron Brooks, used primarily as a dime back off the bench, was drafted in the fourth round, a testament to LSU's depth.

Two years after all those freshman played starring roles in a major bowl game, Simon is the only cornerback from that team still playing for the Tigers.

Question is, will that wide-eyed freshman who got his first career interception in a not-so-long-ago Cotton Bowl be ready to be the elder statesman?