James Simms of Laurel had some modest goals last season as a redshirt freshman at Towson University.
"Playing as a freshman I am going to get some tackles and get some playing time and try to keep my position," Simms told himself.
He did much more than that.
A 6-foot-3 linebacker, the Reservoir High graduate started 11 games for the Tigers and led Towson in tackles with 99.
Simms was sixth in the Colonial Athletic Association with 9.0 tackles per contest and was named to the Jerry Rice Award watch list given to the best freshmen at the Football Championship Subdivision [FCS] level.
He recorded seven tackles for negative yardage, intercepted one pass, recovered one fumble and broke up two passes.
Another top returning linebacker for the Tigers is Wilde Lake High grad Eric Handy, a junior who was fourth on the team with 84 tackles last year.
"For me I took it game-by-game," said Simms, 20, who sat out the 2013 season as a redshirt. "It surprised me, I believe so. I could not have done it without my teammates. They got me through everything."
"I was surprised I was at the top of the nation (in the Rice watch) and my parents were too," adds Simms, the son of Matt and Sandy Palmerton, from Laurel. "The coolest part was knowing that I was nationally known. It was pretty crazy. The older guys definitely pushed me."
Simms is expected to excel again this season for Towson, which was 4-8 last year and opens the 2015 campaign on Sept. 5 at East Carolina University.
"He is a hard worker. I was not surprised with the season he had," Towson cornerbacks coach Derrick Johnson, a Laurel resident and former North Carolina standout, said of Simms. "He did a good job of learning our system."
Towson, which played in the FCS championship game after the 2013 regular season, is picked to finish ninth out of 12 teams this year in the CAA. "I don't really pay attention to that, honestly. It is just a number to us as a team. We have to prove everyone wrong," said Simms, who worked for a moving company on campus this summer, took a class and hit the weights.
The league is considered one of the best at the FCS level: four CAA teams made the national playoffs last year and Towson is one of four CAA schools to reach the title game since 2003.
Towson head coach Rob Ambrose, in his seventh season at his alma mater, was not totally surprised with how Simms performed in 2014. "He is still growing," Ambrose said of Simms, who has struggled to keep on weight but is up to about 210 pounds.
This is the third year on campus for Simms, a redshirt sophomore who is on his way to becoming a leader on and off the field. He also played basketball and baseball at Reservoir.
"I am in the middle right now," he said of class status at Towson. "All of the incoming freshmen, they are asking me questions and I actually know the answers. It feels good. I still have a long way to go."
On offense the Tigers are paced by 5-foot-8 running back Darius Victor, who is from Northwestern High in Hyattsville and ran for 1,305 yards last year as he took over after the departure of Terrance West to the Cleveland Browns of the NFL. "He is a bowling ball," Simms said of Victor.
This year, the Towson defense, meanwhile, plans to switch to a 3-4 scheme. "I believe it is easier for us. It flows better with everything, actually," Simms said. That was certainly the case last year as Simms took the CAA by storm.
Notes: The pre-season Towson roster also includes Jordan Mynatt (redshirt junior linebacker, Wilde Lake High); Ean Katz (junior linebacker, Atholton High); freshman athlete Brent Richardson (Glenelg High); Diondre Wallace (freshman linebacker, Arundel High); freshman cornerback Justice Pettus-Dixon (freshman cornerback from Columbia, St. Frances Academy); and Niquekko Cook (redshirt freshman defensive end, Meade High) … Johnson, the North Laurel resident, is in his eighth season on the staff at Towson. He coached at McDaniel in 2007 and had a tryout with the Redskins out of UNC … The Tigers host CAA preseason favorite Villanova on Oct. 24.