Don’t expect Don Simpson to start predicting immediate championships or Division I playoff glory.
But he truly believes his Middletown High School football team, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2011 and managed just one victory the last two years, is already taking steps in the right direction.
“I love their attitude, I love their grit, I love their fight,” said Simpson, who left his defensive coordinator position at Princeton last December to take his first head coaching job at Middletown.
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“It’s not all about wins and losses. It’s about getting out there and playing 48 minutes hard, being a tough out. Don’t just be that team that people walk over in the (Greater Miami Conference). That’s what we’re trying to instill here.”
Simpson has about 80 players in grades 9-12 and said he’s getting positive vibes from the community.
“Right now, I’ll say we’re still in the honeymoon stage,” Simpson said with a laugh. “They feel the attitude is different. They love me talking about coming in and changing the culture. There’s a nice little buzz going on.”
Simpson is the coordinator of a 3-4 defense that ranked ninth in the GMC in 2017, allowing 372.1 yards and 36.3 points per game. The Middies were an even-front unit last year.
The entire starting secondary returns. That’s senior safeties Troy Vinson and Kailon Johnson, along with senior Shawn Duckworth and junior De’Yon Brown at cornerback.
Vinson (6-0, 180) is drawing some Division I college interest. Brown is a track sprinter and the fastest guy on the team.
“Vinson is the leader of that group,” Simpson said. “He passes the eye test.”
Seniors Gene Underhill (6-1, 215) and James Miller Jr. (5-8, 186) bring some experience as inside linebackers, and senior Cameron Dillingham (5-9, 176) returns as an outside backer and is one of the squad’s fastest runners.
There’s a lot of competition on the defensive line, led by junior ends Cheikh Fall (6-4, 195) and Jayden Burks (6-3, 195), and senior nose guard Chance Walker (6-2, 244).
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“I’m excited about the defense, and not only because I’m over with that group full time,” Simpson said. “Our defense has a lot of playing experience in key places. I think we’re going to be something special on the defensive side. Offensively, we’ll have to get it clicking quickly and get their chemistry going with a brand-new quarterback.”
That QB is senior Jarrenn Thomas (6-0, 160), who’s 0-for-3 passing in his varsity career.
“He’s one of those guys that’s been like a lifelong backup. Now this is his year to start,” Simpson said. “I love the fact that he’s a pitcher on the baseball team. He has that composure to be a good quarterback. He’s got a strong arm and is very athletic.”
Former Clark Montessori head coach Ross Baker is the offensive coordinator and is implementing a spread attack. Middletown won’t be a pound-it rushing team.
“We’re going to get the ball out fast into people’s hands in space,” Simpson said. “The athletes we have here are not guys who are trying to run between the tackles. We know we’ve got to be innovative and start throwing the ball around, get the ball out on the perimeter and make sure we’re challenging people out in space and playing to our strength, which is speed and athletic ability.”
Senior Shandon Morris, junior Au’Braylen Million and sophomore Josh Bryant are returning receivers. Simpson said to keep an eye on freshman Will Williams (6-2, 175), a transfer from the Columbus area.
Sophomore Cameron Junior (6-0, 190) is expected to be the workhorse running back, and Simpson said he’s more of a power runner.
Senior center Dylan McFaddin (5-10, 235) returns up front, along with sophomores Camryn Latimore (6-3, 240) and sophomore Keishaun Beatty (5-9, 269). Junior Sebastian Sharp (6-3, 317) and senior Chris Stallworth (6-5, 255) are also in the mix.
Simpson said the kicking game could be a strength with two junior soccer players, place-kicker Angel Rivera and punter Michael Langendorf.
“With the numbers we have right now, we’re going to have good competition in practice,” Simpson said. “Some people played varsity on this team last year by default. They just didn’t have anybody else.”
Matt Louis is the special teams coordinator for Middletown, which has upcoming scrimmages at home against Northwest on Friday at 11 a.m. and at Fairfield on Aug. 17 at 7 p.m.
Coach: Don Simpson, first season
OHSAA designation: Division I, Region 4
Playoff history: 5-6 in 6 appearances (1987, 1989, 1990, 2009, 2010, 2011)
2017 record: 1-9 overall, 1-7 in the Greater Miami Conference (ninth)
Schedule: Aug. 24 — Western Hills, 7 p.m.; Aug. 31 — at Springboro, 7 p.m.; Sept. 7 — Lakota East, 7 p.m.; Sept. 14 — at Colerain, 7 p.m.; Sept. 21 — at Princeton, 7 p.m.; Sept. 28 — Sycamore, 7 p.m.; Oct. 5 — at Hamilton, 7 p.m.; Oct. 12 — Mason, 7 p.m.; Oct. 19 — Lakota West, 7 p.m.; Oct. 26 — at Oak Hills, 7 p.m.