A sign hangs in the Philip Simmons weight room that reads “39-6.” The Iron Horses haven’t forgotten.
Philip Simmons was vulnerable last season. A first-year varsity team led by a first-year varsity head coach, opponents took advantage, few showed any mercy.
So the score of the program’s first game — the 39-6 drubbing that could’ve been a touchdown worse had time not expired with the opponent still trying to crack the Iron Horse goal line once more — was hung this offseason to serve as a constant reminder of where they once were, how that once felt and how far they believe they’ve come in a year’s time.
“We were still so young last season,” Philip Simmons head coach Eric Bendig said. “And we still kind of are, but at least now we’re more developed as a program and more developed as football players. We’re more prepared to compete now.”
Philip Simmons suffered eight losses last season. Some left Bendig frustrated, some left him encouraged. A 19-point home loss to Garrett in the penultimate game of the season left him intrigued. Bendig admired the energy emitting from Falcons offensive coordinator Alex Renner on the opposite sideline. He appreciated his ability to produce despite dressing just 17 players that night That kind of experience working with limited depth and resources, he thought, could be valuable in building his program and culture. So when Garrett’s athletics department closed its doors this summer, Bendig welcomed Renner as the Iron Horses' new defensive coordinator.
“We got lucky to add him,” Bendig said. “One of the hardest workers I’ve been around and great with the kids, a kid magnet. Nothing but positive energy all day.”
The kind of palpable energy that left Renner toppled over on his back after one of the first few plays of the first scrimmage of the preseason sent him into a fit of enthusiasm.
Renner is implementing a more aggressive 3-3 stack base defense that better suits personnel and simplifies assignments. Tyler Harper captained the defense as a sophomore last season. He stacked up 112 tackles rotating multiple positions. He’ll likely settle into outside linebacker this year, which could make him even more effective.
The defensive backfield might be the strongest part of the unit. Junior rover Jackson Jordan is a promising 6-foot-2 transfer from Oklahoma. Senior safety Kiamani Denmark is a third-year starter. Junior cornerback Peyton Woolridge has the bloodline, at very least, as the brother of DeAngelo Stephenson — the all-state star of Bishop England’s 2011-12 back-to-back state championship teams.
“They’re starting to see that they can play with the other teams out there,” Bendig said. “We’re starting to see more depth in different areas and if they trust what we’re doing, we’re going to be all right.”
Bendig realized he needed to relinquish more control to his coordinators to gain broader perspective as the head coach — that included letting someone else call the plays. So Philip Simmons has also added offensive coordinator Alex Harrell this offseason, a promising young assistant from Kansas City who can devote more time to molding a quarterback and developing the offensive scheme.
“He’s an unbelievable quarterbacks guy,” Bendig said. “That’s what I thought we needed, that quarterback guru.”
Tripp Williams will be Harrell’s first project. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound sophomore resembles something of a Tim Tebow likeness. He played four games at quarterback as a freshman but he’s athletic enough that Philip Simmons played him at linebacker too last season. He'll be cultivated as a quarterback moving forward, a potential cornerstone as a possible starter for years to come.
Williams should be able to depend on a solid running game with seniors Solly Bess and Javi Smith trading carries. Bess and Smith are two of the best athletes on the team. Both had multiple 100-yard games last season. Smith is much more of a punishing runner. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder averaged 8.6 yards per carry with six touchdowns last season. Bess is shifty 5-foot-9, 180-pound track guy that runs a 4.5-second laser-timed 40-yard dash.
“You could probably go a little lower if you hand timed Solly like some of the other 40s you see,” Bendig joked. “He’s a guy I know can play at the next level. Really quick, great vision, he’s one heck of a running back. He just has the natural ability for it.”
Starting a program from scratch set the Iron Horses a class behind, leaving them with a team last year that had no seniors and limited experience. It also means this group has grown up together the past few years. They celebrated together through the 8-1 inaugural junior varsity campaign two years ago and together suffered the lumps of last season’s 2-8 varsity debut.
They haven’t forgotten what either felt like. Motivation can be derived many ways. Right now, for Philip Simmons in year two, it’s the opportunity to repent for the days that has left “39-6” staring back at them.
St. John's 14, Philip Simmons 13
The payoff for Philip Simmons will have to wait another week as the Iron Horses fell 14-13 at St. John's in their season opener Friday on Johns Island.
Philip Simmons led 6-0 at halftime but, after allowing two scores in the third quarter, entered the fourth trailing 14-13.
Iron Horses sophomore quarterback Tripp Williams passed for 100 yards and one touchdown — a 19-yard strike to Peyton Woolridge. Javi Smith led the ground game with 39 yards and a touchdown.
Philip Simmons (0-1) will host Georgetown (0-0) on Friday.