Former walk-on Simone ASU’s big surprise on defense

ASU safety Jordan Simone returns an interception in the second half Saturday at Washington. It was Simone's second interception of the season.

Elaine Thompson

TEMPE, Ariz. — When Arizona State safeties coach Chris Ball talked to coach Todd Graham about adding Jordan Simone, Graham didn’t think too much about it.

Ball had coached Simone Washington State and the offer was to be a walk-on.

"There wasn’t a whole lot of conversation," Graham recalled. "Chris wanted him to come and his recommendation was good enough for me. When we talked at the beginning, we said, ‘Hey, we know this guy’s got a great heart, and we know he’ll be a great special teams guy for us; he might help us as a nickel safety."

Roughly a year and a half later, Graham’s first analysis has proven pretty far off.

"Jordan Simone has played out of this world," Graham said. "You look at the Pac-12 and this guy’s got to be considered one of the best safeties in the Pac-12."

In what was supposed to be a rebuilding season for ASU’s defense, Simone has been by far the biggest surprise. He emerged as the playmaker no one expected.

Well, almost no one.

"I knew what he had in him because I’d been around the kid," Ball said. "Everybody else on the staff didn’t quite know him as well as I did, so I just sort of let Jordan do the work and prove himself to everyone else, and that’s what he’s done."

Ball got Simone to walk-on at Washington State in 2011, instead of a full scholarship offer from Eastern Washington, an FCS team. It quickly became apparent Simone could contribute, and Ball called him the best special teams player that season.

After Washington State changed coaches, Simone was unsure of his future with the Cougars. In their first conversation, Ball tried to convince Simone to stick with it in Pullman. In their second, Simone told Ball he was going to stop playing.

More Sun Devils

"I said, ‘If you ever change your mind, give me a call and we’ll try to get you back out at Washington State,’" Ball said.

Simone sat out the 2012 season and concluded he wanted to keep playing. Ball had joined Graham’s staff by then.

"I texted him and I was like, ‘Hey coach, what do you think about me being a Sun Devil?’" Simone recalled. "He was like, ‘Are you kidding me? We’ve got to get you out here; you’ve got to see the stadium and everything.’"

Simone visited Tempe in November 2012 with his family to watch his older brother Gino, a receiver at Washington State, take on the Sun Devils. After touring ASU’s facilities and experiencing the local weather, Simone decided to enroll at ASU and walk on.

Simone, now a redshirt junior, arrived for spring practice in 2013 but had to sit out the season due to transfer rules. This fall, he battled for a starting job at bandit safety, which he won for the season opener, lost the next week but reclaimed the third week. He has surged since.

Through seven games, Simone is ASU’s second-leading tackler with 60 total tackles for an average of 8.6 per game, which ranks sixth in the Pac-12. His two interceptions account for half the defense’s total. Against USC earlier this month, he registered 20 tackles to become the first ASU player to do so in 25 years. Two of those helped set ASU up for its Hail Mary win.

So how does a high school star without a FBS scholarship offer become a starter — and a standout — in the Pac-12 for a team ranked No. 14 in the nation?

"He just has a tremendous work ethic," Sammamish (Wash.) Skyline High coach Mat Taylor said. "He’s a kid that is going to try to prove you wrong."

Taylor coached Simone at Skyline, first calling him up to play on the varsity scout team as a freshman during the playoffs. By his junior season, Simone was a backup wide receiver and safety.

"But he just continued to work hard and before you know it — I think about week six or seven — he worked his way to a starting role at receiver and did a great job for us," Taylor said.

Simone’s most memorable play that season, a 35-yard touchdown run, came after he broke his collarbone in three places when he lowered his shoulder on a would-be tackler.

"His collarbone was almost disintegrated, and that just shows you how tough this kid was," Taylor said.

By his senior season, Simone started on both sides of the ball. He was all-conference at both positions and won the league’s defensive MVP award. Still, he drew only walk-on interest from Washington and Washington State at the FBS level.

True to form, Simone kept working hard and started on multiple special teams units his first game. Now, he’s a starter on scholarship and perhaps one of the Pac-12’s top safeties. Like Taylor, Simone credits his work ethic.

"Just a lot of hard work, a lot of time behind closed doors working hard," Simone said. "I just put my head down and went to work, man. Hard work beats out talent. That’s what I’ve always said."

What about the specifics of that hard work?

"Working out, film study, a lot of stretching and working out, a lot of extra stuff, like doing yoga twice a week," Simone said. "It’s important to do stuff like that. I got really flexible this offseason, and I think that helped me get a lot faster. I got a lot faster and stronger."

Asked how Simone has come so far, Ball made it a consensus: "Just hard work."

It has helped Simone too that he plays with no fear, proving to be one of the defense’s hardest hitters. His fiery style has also earned him an earful from coaches on a few occasions for going a little too hard in practice.

As much as any physical ability or work ethic, though, Ball praises to Simone’s passion and heart, intangibles that don’t often register on the recruiting trail.

"He loves the game of football, and he wants to be great," Ball said. "Anytime somebody’s got that burning desire to be great and a love for the game they’ve got a chance."

Ball reiterates he hasn’t been surprised by Simone this season but concedes one thing.

"Is he ahead of where I thought he’d be? Yeah, but I’m not shocked," Ball said.

And Simone? Has he surprised even himself this season?

"Yeah," Simone said. "Absolutely."

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