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Redshirt freshmen might be impact players for Towson football

Like any competitor, James Simms was disappointed when coach Rob Ambrose and the rest of the Towson football staff elected to redshirt the then-freshman outside linebacker in 2013.

Simms said Wednesday he is now grateful for that decision.

"The redshirt process was good," the Laurel native and Reservoir graduate said at the Tigers' media day at Johnny Unitas Stadium. "Last year was definitely a big change coming from high school to college. But as I started to get along with everybody and get closer with my teammates, I found that I was making better decisions for me, and I was getting close to everybody."

Simms is one of several redshirt and true freshmen who will get a fair amount of playing time for a team that advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision national championship game in January. Left guard Antonio Harris, another redshirt freshman, joins Simms as a possible starter, and a trio of true freshmen in cornerback Tyron McDade, defensive tackle Reece Burnett and offensive lineman Jesus Barrio could see the field.

Ambrose has not been shy about playing rookies. Since 2009, Ambrose's first season at Towson, quarterback Peter Athens (2009), linebacker Kyle Polk (2010), running back Terrance West (2011) and cornerback Tye Smith (2011) were named Colonial Athletic Association rookies of the week. Sophomore running back Darius Victor was voted the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year last season.

"Some of these guys don't leave you a choice," Ambrose said. "They're really talented, really mature, and they've shown that they can handle it. So it's tough. You don't want to hinder them and you want to plan for the long term. So it's always a challenge to balance that out."

Simms benefited from sitting out his first season. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound linebacker has added 15 pounds of muscle without sacrificing much speed. At a practice last week, he would have had two sacks if the quarterbacks weren't wearing red, non-contact jerseys.

He has lined up with the first defense in training camp and said his teammates have helped, but he's still getting a grip on off-the-field responsibilities.

"Off the field, I feel like I still have a lot of work," Simms said. "But responsibility-wise, I feel like I'm getting better. I'm not losing my keys as much, I'm not losing little things, and I'm paying attention to the little things. That's the biggest thing that I'm doing."

Ambrose said Simms has matured immensely since his first year with the Tigers.

"He did lots of dumb stuff on the field, he did lots of dumb stuff off the field," Ambrose said. "He and I and his parents, we worked together, and now he's not a dumb freshman anymore and is starting to play like it. He's got a great speed for his position."

Harris is another redshirt freshman who could start in the team's season opener Aug. 20 against Central Connecticut. The 6-4, 300-pound Harris has been playing with the first offensive line, but acknowledged he has room to improve.

"I'm not where I expect to be at this point," he said. "I still have a lot I need to work on, and as a team and as a group on the offensive line, it's not about one person. It's about the group, and as a group, we still have some things to work on. We have people coming in and out of the lineup. I think as a group, we're not where we are as of yet, and until we get where we need to be as a group, I can't be where I'm at yet because it all works together."

Meanwhile, McDade, Burnett and Barrio have lined up up with the second teams, and their play has made it difficult for Ambrose to sit them for a season.

"There are going to be some finite decisions made, and a lot of these freshmen whom we believe are extremely talented, they're kind of vying for a spot," he said. "We're not going to break a guy's redshirt so that he can sit on the bus and just play on special teams. We're talking about being a starter, and there are guys in definite contention."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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