HOUSTON--How good is Jason Simpson? Depends on who you ask.
"He is one of the best safeties in the country without question," said Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel.
Yet Simpson was only an honorable mention selection when the coaches picked the all-Big 12 squads last year. He did make the Associated Press' second-team, but was absent when the league released its pre-season all-Big 12 picks this year. Those spots went to Michael Huff, Jaxson Appel and Daniel Bullocks.
"I don't know," says Brad Smith when asked why Simpson is not viewed in that elite group. "If our team would have gone to a bowl game, I'm sure he would have been in that league. He had an amazing year. He definitely deserves it."
Simpson's junior season saw him make 98 tackles, 15 for a loss, best on the team. He forced two fumbles, broke up six passes and returned an interception for a touchdown to turn the game around at Baylor. He may have been the best player on the Big 12's best defense.
But ask most fans around the Big 12 to name the top three safeties in the league and Simpson's name will rarely come up.
"If you've been around me, I don't make statements like that unless, number one, I believe them," Pinkel said. "Number two is, I think he's really underrated. I think he's really, really a high level Big 12 college football player and I would suggest he will be one of the best safeties in the country and I believe that or I wouldn't say it."
Simpson's play has been exemplary. But it is not his play which draws the most praise from Pinkel.
"Jason is probably the best field leader we've had since I've been here," said the fifth-year Tiger coach. "He's a visual aid for how you lead a game day. That's nice because we've had guys that have done a good job, but not quite like he's done. He's certainly, all our young players will see what a game day leader will be and that's Jason."
Simpson is the prototypical vocal leader. Go to any Tiger practice and you'll hear him howling.
"I think you've got to be," Simpson said on Wednesday. "You've got to let people know what you're thinking or else they don't know what you're thinking. You've got to convey to them how you feel and they have to tell you how they feel. Open lines of communication are all about maturity and being secure with yourself."
It is that quality that Smith admires the most in the Tigers' defensive leader and likely captain.
"I think he gets fuel from talking trash to other people," Smith said. "Knowing that he's better than you, the confidence he has in himself is amazing and I just try to get around him and feed off of that for myself. I think that could be another part of me that could make me better."
Smith has to work at being more vocal. Simpson, if anything, has had to work to control his emotion. It is not something that's taught. The Woodlands, Texas was born that way.
"I've always been like that. My family's very intense," he said. "All my parents, I've got three parents, and my mom was a basketball player at Baylor. My real dad, he played baseball and basketball and he was good at that. My stepdad, he played baseball too. We're just a sport-driven family. Love what you do and do it well, or at least as well as you can. Give everything you've got."
Playing on a defense which lost seven starters, including five that were either drafted or signed free agent contracts in the NFL, Simpson will be asked to do even more as a senior.
"Every year I've tried to become a better leader. That's always something that I've had to work on because I don't really put up with a lot of stuff," Simpson said, his tone of voice indicating 'stuff' would not have been his choice of words were this not an interview for publication. "I kind of get after them a lot more than even the coaches sometimes. I think my team respects me in that sense."
At the same time, Simpson knows he will need plenty of help if the Tigers are to come close to replicating 2004's defensive success.
"I know I'm one of the top guys," he said. "I might be the one that's looked at the most, but I'm just a normal dude just like everybody else. I'm still doing the same practices and running during the summer. We're all together, there's nobody better than the other guy. It will take all 22 of us no matter what."
All of this from a player who was suspended by Pinkel early in his career for disciplinary reasons. The turnaround is obvious to all around the program, particularly to Simpson himself.
"We've become much closer," the player said of the coach. "I used to never want to talk to the coaching staff, but now we're all cool, we all talk. I know it's a business atmosphere, but you've got to keep it fun somehow. You've got to mess with the coaches or they mess with us or whatever. It's a lot more fun now. We work on player-coach development or relationships and I think it's paying off a lot."
"That was a very difficult time," Pinkel recalled. "I get letters from guys five years after they leave my program, thanking me for suspending them five years ago. You don't get them while the guy's still playing. That's personal, whatever he wants to say about that is fine. The thing is, Jason has all this great ability and he's got this great fire. I've said, too, that Jason came into me and said, 'Coach, you want me to be like you.' I said, 'Boring me? I don't want you to be like me at all. I want you to be Jason Simpson, but do it in the framework of the team and from a leadership standpoint.' That's all I did."
All Pinkel has done is help mold one of the top defensive players in one of the league's best conferences. Now, the question is whether anyone outside of Columbia will notice.
"He's one of the best," Smith said. "I believe the team will do well enough to get him the respect he deserves."
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