The first thing Shane Simpson sees each morning is a piece of white printer paper hanging overhead on the ceiling of his bedroom. He can recite the most important figures lining it: 1,800 rushing yards, 400 receiving yards, 15 touchdowns, the Walter Payton Award. His goals for this Towson football season are handwritten, a personal touch for objectives the sophomore running back and returner did not set himself.
Saquon Barkley is a Penn State legend, a Heisman Trophy favorite, a likely top-five pick in the 2018 NFL draft. He is also a “brother” to Simpson, rivals on the field during their Lehigh Valley Conference playing days and training partners off it. It’s a football-forged friendship with certain entitlements. Goal-setting power among them.
So while Barkley strives for Simpson’s own handpicked benchmarks — 2,000 rushing yards, 20 touchdowns and the Heisman Trophy, “obviously” — a success-hungry Tigers program will watch the progress of perhaps its next great running back with anticipation.
Towson has not appeared in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs since 2013. Ninth-year coach Rob Ambrose said this year would be a disappointment if the Tigers missed out again. The hope is that Simpson can be the face of the kind of resurgence Barkley has engineered at Penn State.
“It should be a very, very, very interesting year,” Ambrose said of his preseason All-America kick returner.
His emergence last season came maybe a year ahead of schedule. Starting running back Darius Victor, now a rookie leading the New Orleans Saints in rushing through three weeks of preseason, played in just four games before a toe injury ended his senior year.
Simpson had started his Towson career at wide receiver — “We knew he knew how to play running back,” Ambrose explained — but relocated after Victor’s injury. He finished the season leading the team in carries (141) and rushing yards (784) and second in average (5.6 yards per attempt). He was also first in gameday positions held: As the No. 1 kickoff and punt returner, Simpson set the program’s single-game record for return yards and amassed nearly 1,000 overall.
This offseason, he has become more attuned to the offense’s run-blocking schemes. In that way, senior offensive lineman Antonio Harris said, Simpson’s qualities have a new edge. He’s like the Tigers’ very own Darren Sproles and Le’Veon Bell.
“You want to get him to the second level, because once he gets to the second level, it's over,” Harris said.
“As a former offensive coordinator, one of your normal jobs is to find the guys that have the ability to score points and make sure you put the ball in their hands,” said Ambrose, who ran Connecticut’s offense under former Maryland coach Randy Edsall. “The more versatile those guys are, the more opportunities they have and the more options you have. Shane is very talented and very, very versatile.”
The Lehigh Valley knows that by now. So does Barkley. When the future Nittany Lion and Tiger met in 2012, as high school sophomores, Simpson had just eclipsed the 1,000-yard threshold and rushed for a game-high 102 yards in Easton’s loss to Whitehall. Barkley, then mainly an outside linebacker, had an interception. They chatted after the game, and “ever since then,” Simpson said, “we've just been clicking.”
Simpson’s parents had instilled in him a simple lesson: “You are who you hang out with,” and the duo seemed to bring out the best in each other. Barkley lacked confidence at times, Simpson said; he was also a “very, very legendary” workout warrior. Over training sessions at their local FASST Performance facility and in 7-on-7 games elsewhere in Pennsylvania, they went at each other with sarcastic comments and dramatic jukes.
The rewards were enormous. As a sophomore, according to Sports Illustrated, Barkley told friends he hoped to one day earn a scholarship to nearby Division II Kutztown. By the end of his junior year, he was a four-star prospect committed to Penn State.
Simpson’s recruiting profile did not mushroom as his friend’s had, but not for a lack of ever-mounting production. It was Simpson, not Barkley, who was named the 2014 Player of the Year by Lehigh Valley Live after setting school records for single-season rushing yards, single-season touchdowns, career touchdowns, career receiving yards and career receptions in his senior year. In their last on-field meeting, Simpson scored seven touchdowns as Easton knocked off Barkley’s Whitehall for the first time in three years.
Barkley, who was trying to recruit Simpson to State College with him, predicted after the game that they would see each other again in the playoffs. Neither plan panned out — Whitehall lost early in the postseason, and new Nittany Lions coach James Franklin’s few remaining scholarships were reserved for offensive linemen. So Simpson, two weeks after his high school career ended, committed to Towson. The coaches there hadn’t stopped calling him.
“We've had a long line of really good backs,” Ambrose said, referring to Victor and Ravens running back Terrance West, who played at Northwestern High. “He's not from the same cloth, but he's still got some of their stuff in him, and he can do stuff those guys couldn't do.”
Simpson and Barkley have talked infrequently this preseason, maybe once every couple of weeks, but on gamedays, they make sure to share good-luck texts. Barkley has told him he’d like to visit one day, and Simpson wants to get up to Happy Valley. It’s about a three-hour trip from Johnny Unitas Stadium to Penn State’s Beaver Stadium, but the space between feels closer to the Lehigh Valley kids who already have driven each other to new places and bigger goals.
TOWSON AT A GLANCE
Coach: Rob Ambrose (ninth season, 47-48 at Towson)
2016 record: 4-7; tied for eighth in Colonial Athletic Association
Expected finish: picked 10th of 12 teams in CAA preseason poll
Saturday, Morgan State, 6 p.m.
Sept. 9, at Maryland, noon
Sept. 16, at Saint Francis (Pa.), 7 p.m.
Sept. 23, at Stony Brook, 6 p.m.
Sept. 30, Villanova, 6 p.m.
Oct. 14, Richmond, 4 p.m.
Oct. 21, at New Hampshire, 2 p.m.
Oct. 28, Delaware, 4 p.m.
Nov. 4, at Elon, 2 p.m.
Nov. 11, at William & Mary, 2 p.m.
Nov. 18, Rhode Island, 2 p.m.