Shayne Simon offered a pretty simple assessment of his season three weeks ago.
“There’s definitely been a lot of growth, but plenty more to do,” said the starting Notre Dame buck linebacker. “It hasn’t been perfect. First and foremost, I want to improve on my technique and fundamentals and continue to just make more plays.”
Simon certainly followed through on the latter last weekend against Clemson. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Simon played undeniably the best game of his Irish career with a series of valuable plays.
He stuffed Clemson running back Travis Etienne on a third-and-1 carry for a one-yard loss after Irish nose guard Kurt Hinish disrupted the play. He filled a hole on the next drive to stop Etienne for a one-yard gain.
Simon’s most impressive play came in coverage against slot receiver Amari Rodgers. The Irish junior blanketed Rodgers to break up a third-and-3 pass thrown his way.
Simon finished the game with four tackles, two pass breakups and one tackle for a loss. He was bouncing around looking like the linebacker he was once heralded to be almost a year since rupturing the patellar tendon in his right knee.
A game that could serve as a launching pad for his career at No. 2 Notre Dame (7-0, 6-0 ACC) was treated with a ho-hum attitude three days later.
“I just try to stick to my traits, stick to the process that we already have, watch film, play hard in practice and continue to get better and better,” Simon said. “And yeah, I think I made some plays that helped the team. I’m just hoping to do the same going forward.”
Saturday night wasn’t a coronation for Simon. He hasn’t yet fully won the majority of buck linebacker reps, according to head coach Brian Kelly. But Simon started each of the last five games since being unavailable for the South Florida game due to COVID-19 protocols and will likely do so against Boston College (5-3, 4-3) on Saturday (3:30 p.m. EST on ABC).
“He’s still emerging,” Kelly said of Simon. “He’s not there yet. Marist (Liufau) didn’t play much. He had the targeting, so that opened the door for Shayne. We’re really pleased with his progression.
“There’s still some things out there that we need him to work on — shedding blocks, getting off blocks, a couple of instinctual things that he can get better at. But he’s attacking the line of scrimmage. He’s finishing off tackles. He has really good awareness in space in the pass game. We’re really seeing somebody that is elevating his game.”
Ivan Candelaria felt it was only a matter of time until Simon started playing like he did against Clemson. The owner of Radical Physical Therapy and Athletic Development has been working with Simon since his junior year at Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peter’s Prep.
“He was a specimen always,” said Candelaria, who has been a trainer for 20 years. “He’s always been a manchild. He moves so well. His movement patterns are just exceptional. That’s what sets him apart from everybody else.
“There are guys that work hard, guys that are really smart. He has all those intangibles, but the second you see him move you know he’s going to play on Sunday.”
That’s the kind of projections Simon received coming out of high school as a four-star recruit. 247Sports slated him as the No. 5 outside linebacker and No. 48 overall in the 2018 class. Rivals ranked him as the No. 14 outside linebacker and No. 168 overall.
Simon was an Army All-American following a senior season at St. Peter’s Prep with 55 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, five interceptions, three sacks and one forced fumble on defense and 52 catches for 840 yards and six touchdowns on offense.
The game opportunities for Simon to match that hype were limited in his first two seasons with the Irish. He played in nine games as a freshman mostly on special teams and late in blowout victories. That role continued for Simon last season as a backup buck linebacker behind grad senior Asmar Bilal until his season-ending knee injury against Navy in mid-November.
Simon said it took until June for him to start feeling like himself again. Candelaria described Simon’s patellar tendon rupture, which required surgery, as an injury that typically requires a six-month recovery that can extend to nine months. He saw Simon accelerate through the rehab process.
“He’s very in tune with his body,” Candelaria said. “He asks great questions. He also pushes you to do more. He’s an A player. A players like to get measured. He’s definitely one of those guys.”
The recovery was slow at first. Simon wasn’t able to walk without crutches for several weeks.
“It was definitely tough,” Simon said. “A lot of dark days. You get down in the dumps when you’re not able to do stuff. You finally are able to get to walk, then you can’t really run. Everything kind of hurts for a while, and it stunk.”
Even if Notre Dame’s spring football wasn’t wiped out by COVID-19 precautions, Simon was going to be sidelined for the duration. Returning home to New Jersey when Notre Dame students were told to finish the semester away from campus allowed Simon to rehab with Candelaria almost daily.
“He was upbeat. He never felt sorry for himself,” Candelaria said. “I remember walking in and he was on the table. I told him, ‘What are you going to do, quit?’ Pretty much in so many kind words, he was like, ‘Hell no. Let’s do this.’ There was no second-guessing, feeling sorry for yourself.
“That’s a major injury. Some guys don’t come back from that so easy. It’s your speed. That’s your first step. That patellar tendon injury isn’t a light thing. It’s something that you need to help be explosive, to reach top speed and be able to cut and decelerate. It’s not easy by any means even for a specimen like him. He was not going to let that beat him at all. It wasn’t even an option.”
The Clemson game was the first sign that Simon could close the door on the buck linebacker competition if he continues to play that well. The Irish defense limited Etienne, the ACC’s all-time rushing leader, to just 28 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries thanks in large part to the play of Notre Dame’s front seven.
“I definitely think there was some sort of chemistry between me and Shayne,” said mike linebacker Drew White, “but really as a defense as a whole. I think we were all just clicking. And I think that’s going to be more evident as the season progresses.”
Simon’s performance has started to meet the expectations Candelaria has for him.
“He looks great. He’s exactly what I expected. I’m not surprised at all,” Candelaria said. “I’ve done this a long time and worked with over 40 NFL clients privately. So I see what it takes and how they’re measured. He’s right in that ballpark of elite athlete.”
Yet Simon is far from a finished product. Before last Saturday, he only recorded six tackles in five games. Liufau and Jack Kiser are both pushing for playing time at buck linebacker too.
“There’s still more out there for him,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t say that this thing is, ‘Hey, this a done deal. Shayne Simon, he has the position.’ There’s still some competition out there and we like it.
“We like to keep the competition lively out there. Really pleased with where he’s going. He has some room to continue to grow, which is a great thing.”
Simon welcomes the competition. He doesn’t want the Clemson game to represent a peak. Simon wants to be better no matter how cliché it sounds. The improvement showed that the objective mattered.
“It was definitely a fun game to play in,” Simon said. “Huge atmosphere. It’s why you come to Notre Dame, to play in these big-time games. But it’s not the mountaintop.
“There were more plays for me to make and things I have to work on to get better and better. So it was a big game, but I have a lot more to prove, a lot more to play for. I’m looking forward to doing that.”