Photo courtesy Northwestern State athletics -- Northwestern State's Deon Simon

There’s a great deal of symbolism attached to the return to Baton Rouge of Northwestern State senior defensive tackle Deon Simon, who’s playing in his hometown one final time.

While Simon’s focus has been on Southern this week, his homecoming for Saturday’s 6 p.m. kickoff at A.W. Mumford Stadium is also cause for personal reflection.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Simon, a 2009 graduate of Glen Oaks. “It will be an exciting moment for me to go back home, play in front of a lot of family and friends. It will be my first time to play in the stadium, so it’s going to be a blessed opportunity.”

Today’s portrait of Simon — preseason first-team All-Southland Conference selection, one of five team captains, potential NFL draft choice and soon-to-be graduate — is in stark contrast to his image coming out of high school.

Simon was considered one of the area’s top defensive linemen heading into his final year at Glen Oaks, and he committed to Central Florida. Four games into his senior season, he suffered a severe knee injury and faced academic shortcomings.

Simon found himself at a crossroads, and the 6-foot-4, 322-pounder eschewed the junior-college route to sign with Northwestern State.

“Everything kind of fell apart for him, and then academically he slipped and went into a bad place,” said NSU head coach Jay Thomas, who was defensive line coach at that time.

Thomas said it took Simon two years of persevering to finally gain his eligibility. This December, Simon will become the first member of his family to graduate from college; he’ll have a degree in criminal justice.

During that period of inactivity on the field, Simon lived with a friend from high school, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of an apartment. When he wasn’t going to class and studying, Simon worked out on his own, attended practice and watched from afar.

“I had a minor setback, but I stayed focused throughout the process,” he said. “I got the opportunity to come here and play, and I just took advantage of it.”

Missing the better part of 2½ years, starting with the knee injury, resulted in a more protracted return to the field. Simon played as a reserve, displaying signs of his ability along the way with four tackles his freshman year at LSU and again a year later at Nevada.

Thomas, a native of Baker, returned from a stint at Missouri Southern to take over NSU’s program and recalled a meeting before the spring of 2013, imploring Simon to try to become a pillar in the middle of the defense.

Such conversations, rooted around drive and determination, have ensued, and Simon has taken heed. He more than doubled his production last season, finishing with 42 tackles — eighth on the team — to go with seven stops for loss and four sacks.

Simon, who was named honorable mention All-SLC, enjoyed high-water marks of eight tackles and 1½ sacks against Central Arkansas, seven against Nicholls State and five apiece with a sack in games with UAB and Langston.

“It starts up front, and I’m a key guy up front, so I basically try to control the line of scrimmage,” Simon said. “Each year I’ve taken a step forward and just got better and better.”

Simon’s development has led to intrigue from NFL personnel, who have inquired about him through Thomas, attended spring practice or even as recently Monday were on hand to watch him work out.

“I dreamed about (the NFL) since I started playing football,” Simon said. “It’s real exciting. I’m just taking it a day at a time, focus on one thing until the next step I have to take.”

Buried beneath an avalanche of points (70) and total yards (720) was Simon’s performance of five tackles in NSU’s 70-6 loss to Baylor on Saturday, the only opportunity to gauge his skill against a nationally ranked FBS opponent. It was the kind of performance, given the competition, Thomas knew Simon was capable of.

“When you’ve got a guy like that playing on the interior of your defense, he has to be a force,” Thomas said. “We’ve got him all over the place, trying to be creative with him and allow him to show his talents.”

While the Southern game constitutes his second trip to play before family and friends in his hometown, there’s no comparison between Simon then and now. The early pitfalls that threatened to derail him six years ago are now footnotes in a career the 24-year-old has distinguished himself with on-field performance and academic achievement.

“I had my family behind me. They kept me humble and helped me to stay focused,” Simon said. “I wanted a lot out of life. I’ve come from little to nothing. This is something I had to maintain to get where I wanted to go.”