Jordan Simone an emerging star on young ASU defense

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Simone makes one of his 13 tackles against Colorado (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) By Doug Pensinger Simone makes one of his 13 tackles against Colorado (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) By Doug Pensinger

TEMPE, Ariz. -- After losing nine starters from last year's defense, six of whom were either first or second team All-Pac-12, Arizona State needed some new playmakers to emerge.

If the first three games are any indication, they have at least one new star.

As one of the few returning starters. the Sun Devils knew that they had one of the conference's best safeties in Damarious Randall. While a dynamic playmaker equally apt to put a hard hit on a running back or make a game-changing interception downfield, Randall couldn't do it alone. 

Enter Jordan Simone.

Throughout fall camp, Simone, a redshirt junior, battled James Johnson and Marcus Ball for the starting field safety job opposite Randall. While many have considered Ball the favorite, Simone's steady play and knack for always being around the ball eventually won out.

After sitting out last season following a transfer from Washington State, Simone has been one the defense's top contributors. His 23 tackles are second only to Randall, and he has been a factor in forcing three turnovers.

“I’ve just been doing what Coach has asked me to do," Simone said. "I have to give all the coaches the credit, because they put me in position to make plays. Progressing every week and focusing on that has been huge, and just trying to get better at practice each day. Taking it day by day is the biggest thing for me.”

Simone, whose father Ronnie played football at ASU in the 1980s, made a team-high 13 tackles added his interception and forced fumble in ASU's win over Colorado. Teaming with Randall, ASU now boasts one of the better safety duos in the conference.

“Damarious and I are around each other enough that he knows what I’m thinking and I know what he’s thinking," Simone said. "It works out really well. We can look at each other and know what’s going on. It’s a sixth sense thing that we’ve got. He’s a great player and we feed off of each other’s energy.”

The play of Simone and Randall has been a major factor in head coach Todd Graham calling the team's secondary the strength of the defense. Their veteran presence has provided a sense of stability on an otherwise young and inexperienced defense still in the process of finding itself.

“I’m like the father of the defense, the grandpa," Simone said. "Me and Damarious are back there talking. Lloyd (Carrington) has some experience. We’re just trying to get everyone in the right position, listen to the coaches and just be leaders.”

As is to be expected with a unit featuring nine new starters, the defense remains a work in progress. The unit has repeatedly shown their big play potential, but has also struggled in the last two weeks, allowing both New Mexico and Colorado to rally back after ASU has stormed out to big early leads.

“Everywhere needs to improve," Simone said. "If one thing is not improving, it’s going to have to improve for next week, because everyone else will be at another level. Everyone has got to get better every day. D-line, linebacker, secondary, we all have to do what our coaches are telling us to do. That’s the way we will be successful.”

As they battle through the growing pains, Simone sees some great potential on his side of the ball.

“I’m excited. The young guys have definitely been stepping up," said Simone. "D.J. Calhoun at linebacker has been making plays. Armand Perry has stepped in and made plays. It’s just a matter of getting the entire defense on the same page and getting better every week, which is ultimately going to get us right at the end of the season for a national championship.”

The next test for Simone and the Sun Devils may be the season's most crucial.

On Thursday, ASU hosts No. 12 UCLA in what has become the Pac-12 South's premier rivalry. Since the conference split into divisions in 2011, the winner of this matchup has won the South title each time.

While a weekday primetime game with so much on the line could prove to be a distraction, Simone says that his team is focusing inward.

“It’s definitely a Pac-12 South rivalry,” Simone said. “We’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be a battle. We’re really confident, and we just have to worry about what we’re going to do. I think that will ultimately help us get a victory."

Simone and company will be facing a UCLA offense that likely will have star quarterback Brett Hundley behind center. One of the most dynamic players in the nation, Hundley leads a familiar, yet potent, attack.

“They like to throw the ball deep,” Simone said. “Hundley likes to get out of the pocket, buys time, and the receivers just start running deep. We just have to worry about what we’re going to do, play our defense, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Stopping Hundley and company is just one worry for the Sun Devils in this game. ASU will be without starting quarterback Taylor Kelly for the game and likely a few more after he broke a bone in his foot against Colorado. 

Stepping in Kelly's place for his first career start is redshirt junior Mike Bercovici, who beyond being his team's quarterback, is also Simone's roommate. Knowing Bercovici as well as he does, Simone, like most ASU players this week, didn't hesitate to express his full confidence in Bercovici facing UCLA.

“I’m really confident in Mike. Our team backs him 100 percent," Simone said. "You couldn’t ask for a better guy to step in when a starter goes down. He’s the best backup quarterback in the country. He’s going to prove to a lot of people that patience is going to pay off and that this is his time. He’s been here for four years. The team couldn’t have any more confidence in him that we do TK.”

Thursday night will be a fierce battle between division rivals, and the road after that will get no easier. But for Simone, it's just another step in his quest to make a mark at the school he has long loved. 

“I’m a huge Sun Devil. My dad went here. I have baby pictures in ASU clothes," Simone. "Been a Sun Devil my whole life. Coach Graham and what they are doing for this program is huge.

"We’re definitely on the rise and a national championship is our goal.”