Cody Simon only needs one sentence to remind you just how young he really is.
“I’m still learning the process of things around here,” Simon said on Thursday. “I’ve never actually been to a game with all the fans there.”
That’s sometimes hard to remember, given the fact that he has spent more than a year at Ohio State. Yet it’s the truth. His only games have come in front of sparse crowds. And even in those games, he didn’t exactly do much. Al Washington had four veterans to rely on – Baron Browning, Pete Werner, Tuf Borland and Justin Hilliard – and Simon didn’t even get onto campus until last summer. He ultimately played only 14 defensive snaps, spending most of his in-game time on special teams.
The limited opportunities, however, did nothing to mask the fact that Simon was making impressions – strong, strong impressions – behind the scenes.
Teradja Mitchell, the Buckeyes’ projected starting weakside linebacker, has been around for more than three years. He’s seen numerous impact players come and go, and he’s been around to see how plenty of leaders carry themselves. Simon, he indicated, measures up with the best.
“From Day 1, I noticed that Cody's a natural-born leader,” Mitchell said. “He comes in, he puts his head down, he works every day. He's very disciplined, very detailed about his work. He's going to be great. He's going to be one of the greats here.”
Those traits help to explain how Simon’s in such a prime position to make an impact on this Ohio State defense in the fall.
He walked into this offseason as a true sophomore with negligible in-game experience and less than a year of time on campus, and seven months later he’s at the forefront of a preseason camp position battle. Things have happened quickly for the former top-100 recruit.
Simon, quite simply, has taken advantage of the opportunities – both expected and unexpected – he has found in front of him. In the spring, the Buckeyes were already entering a new era at linebacker after their four top snap-getters had left, and he took even more reps than anticipated because of a foot injury to Dallas Gant that sidelined him in March and April.
“I just needed the reps,” Simon said. “I didn't have a lot of reps last season – obviously we had four star linebackers. Spring was a time I got a lot of reps and I got to play a lot. It really helped me become a stronger player and a tougher player. I was happy with the spring. It was a good spring. It was productive for the whole team.”
He got a full offseason working with Mickey Marotti, too.
Now in preseason camp, he remains seeing ample first-team reps as Washington figures out who’ll be the guys he leans on the most. On the day camp broke, he was with the starting defense at linebacker alongside Mitchell.
“I'm super hungry,” Simon said. “I've always wanted to play out there on the biggest stage. The biggest games are my favorite. Right now, it's just working hard right now and getting ready for that moment. You never know when it's going to come, but you've always got to be ready for when that comes. I'm trying to get ready right now.”
It’s been a quick upward trajectory for Simon. But that’s what can happen in a situation with so much turnover.
The Buckeyes needed somebody to step up. Well, they needed multiple people to step up with Browning, Werner, Borland and Hilliard gone. Most believe that Mitchell is one of those guys. Coming into the preseason, the question was who’d be the other linebacker or two who’d make a difference.
Gant remains in Washington’s plans in some capacity, and he wants to start as well. USC transfer Palaie Gaoteote would be a possibility, too, if he gets cleared by the NCAA. K’Vaughan Pope is in the mix, too, and Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers are pushing for looks.
At this point, though, Simon appears as likely to be a starter as anybody else, and he might just be the frontrunner to be on the field first alongside Mitchell.
“Just a really mature kid,” Washington said. “Very focused. Processes really fast. Obviously very gifted physically. He's just a mature kid for his age. He took last year, for example, and didn't play much but really learned from the guys that were really playing and took advantage of that time. We're excited about Cody. He's a phenomenal leader as well. Players really respond to him.”
Those intangibles happen – perhaps not by accident – to also be exactly what Simon hopes Buckeye supporters notice when he takes the field this season.
“I hope they see an ultimate leader,” Simon said. “Someone who can conduct a defense and someone who can just be a team player. I want to be the best player for the team I can be, and whatever that role is, I'm going to play it as hard as I can.”