High School Football

Many with area ties take to NFL fields today

With NFL camps already in full swing, Maurice Simpkins had begun the almost-annual transition from football player to computer programmer early last month.

The former Coastal Carolina linebacker starred for the Green Bay Blizzard of the Indoor Football League in 2010, but that didn't draw any interest from the NFL. Ready to have him closer to the action, Simpkins' Philadelphia-based employer asked him to go ahead and prepare for a move back to the Eastern Seaboard.

Those plans soon changed.

"I was sitting in bed with my computer writing a program when my phone rang," Simpkins said. "It was a 920 number. I couldn't figure out who was calling me at 9 in the morning. It was Eliot Wolfe. He said, 'Can you be here by 10 a.m.?'"

Wolfe, the Green Bay Packers assistant director of pro personnel, had given Simpkins the second chance he was hoping for. Injuries had decimated the team's linebacking corps and they needed bodies to help fill the gaps. After impressing the coaching staff in a workout, Simpkins learned he fit the bill.

Despite earning a camp roster spot, the rookie, whose final season at Coastal was in 2005, was a long shot to stick with the team, but he gave the Packers reason to believe he had potential worth keeping. Simpkins had 13 tackles, including 12 solo stops, in the preseason, ranking second on the team.

This was from a player that still doesn't fully understand the scheme and hasn't yet acclimated to the speed of NFL football. Simpkins' production wasn't enough to earn a spot on the final 53-man roster - Green Bay has loads of talent at linebacker - but it did earn him a place on the practice squad.

"I came in through a back door," he said. "That's how I felt. I graduated in 2006. I'm 27 years old. Most of the rookies are 23-, 22- or 21-year-old guys. I felt like the odds were stacked against me coming in, but they gave me a chance to prove myself.

"I consider it a win in my book. Plus, I'm able to do whatever it takes to help the team reach its ultimate goal, which is a championship."

Simpkins nearly gave up football in 2009.

He played two seasons with the Rock River Raptors (Ill.) of the Continental Indoor Football League and had returned to Atlanta to pursue his work as a computer programming contractor. He took the 2009 season off but decided to play for the Blizzard this past season mainly because the Packers had inquired about him before.

"I'm not going to say I didn't think I was going to get a shot," Simpkins said. "I knew I wasn't going to give up trying to get a shot."

On the first Sunday of the NFL season, we look at other NFL players with ties to the Grand Strand:

Dolphins DE Clifton Geathers

The rookie from Carvers Bay didn't go unemployed long. He was drafted in the sixth round last spring, but the Cleveland Browns cut him on Sept. 4. A day later, the Dolphins snatched him up to fill a need at defensive end.

Geathers' size and athleticism made him an intriguing NFL prospect. Some teams projected him as a 4-3 defensive end or tackle. Others saw him as a 3-4 defensive end. Some even wanted to move him to offensive tackle.

He figures to play end in Miami's 3-4 scheme, which relies on bigger ends to help keep blockers away from the team's linebackers. The Dolphins lost one of their ends for the 2010 season this summer, when former Clemson standout Phillip Merling tore his Achilles tendon.

Geathers had five tackles for the Browns during the preseason. He is listed as the Dolphins' third-team left end behind Kendall Langford and Tony McDaniel.

However, Geathers isn't guaranteed a roster spot past the opener. Palm Beach Post (Fla.) writer Ben Volin wrote this week that the Dolphins might bring back one of the veterans they previously cut next week in order to save on salary.

Bengals DE Robert Geathers

The seventh-year pro and brother of Clifton Geathers is hoping to return to top form after a disappointing campaign in 2009. He had just 36 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 15 starts.

It was his third straight season with less than four sacks since signing a huge contract extension following 10.5-sack, 42-tackle campaign in 2006, when he didn't start a game and was used mostly as a third-down rush end. He's become an every-down player since, meaning his responsibilities have increased beyond rushing the passer.

Still, fans and the media are craving a return to his 2006 form. Geathers has 212 tackles and 26 sacks in his six seasons, all with the Bengals.

He is currently listed as the team's starting left end. Geathers was hampered with injuries during the preseason, which forced the Bengals to use former Georgia Tech standout Michael Johnson at end instead of fast tracking his transition to outside linebacker.

With the addition of former Florida end Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals have a proven collegiate pass rusher. That may allow Geathers to focus more on stopping the run, which is his strength.

Bengals WR Jerome Simpson

The third-year pro from Coastal has vowed to shut up and then put up in 2010.

Simpson has been criticized and vilified by Bengals fans and the Cincinnati media for his lack of production over the last two seasons. He has been active for only eight games, making one catch for two yards.

It's not the type of the production the Bengals had expected when they gambled on him with a second-round selection in 2008. Simpson was drafted ahead of two players that have already made Pro Bowl appearances: Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson and Baltimore running back Ray Rice.

After Simpson's relations with the Cincinnati media soured, he ultimately decided to end them altogether. Neither he nor his agent are talking with the media.

Simpson made the Bengals' final roster, and he may be in position to earn more playing time this season. He is listed as Chad Ochocinco's backup at one of the receiver positions.

Simpson had 12 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown in the preseason.

Dolphins QB Tyler Thigpen

The former Coastal standout begins his fourth NFL season and second with the Miami Dolphins, who traded for him last September following an injury to Chad Pennington.

Chad Henne is Miami's undisputed starter, leaving Thigpen and Pennington to battle for backup duties during camp. Pennington appears to have won that battle, meaning Thigpen will serve, at least initially, as the team's emergency quarterback.

"I just think Tyler is just going to have to sit there and wait for his turn if it comes there," Thigpen's agent, Joel Turner, said. "As far as who is their No. 2, I don't know if that's going to be a week-to-week decision based on how they look at practice or what have you. With Pennington's experience and what they are paying him, I'd think he'd technically be the No. 2 guy."

Thigpen had solid numbers during the preseason, completing 57.1 percent of his passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns. He threw just one interception but was sacked seven times. He had a passer rating of 87.2, 10 points higher than Henne.

"He really likes the coaching staff and the hands-on coaching that he has received from the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator," Turner said. "They've given him a whole lot of development. ... He's improved dramatically as a quarterback. He can see it on tape, so he's been happy being down there."

Thigpen is in the final year of his initial, four-year rookie contract.

Chargers FB Mike Tolbert

Having signed a one-year contract tender in the offseason, Tolbert begins his third season as a valued member of the Chargers' offense and special teams. He has shown versatility since entering the league in 2008 and figures to play a multi-faceted role this season.

Tolbert is listed as the team's backup fullback behind Jacob Hester, but he is also its third-team tailback behind Ryan Matthews and Darren Sproles.

"Mike is going to be a jack-of-all-trades, do-a-little-of-everything player," said Turner, Tolbert's agent. "He's on all the special teams. The put him on all of them, not just the offensive special teams, because he'll go down there and hit people.

"He's going to also be at fullback and running back. He's proven he can run, he can block and he can catch, so he's going to do a little of everything. He can do that regardless of where he's at on the field. That's one of the reasons they only kept four backs, because Mike gives them a totally different dynamic."

Tolbert rushed 23 times for 88 yards (3.8 per carry) in the preseason. He had a long of 32 yards and scored one touchdown. He also caught four passes for 34 yards.

Rams RB Allen Patrick

The former Conway standout has bounced around the NFL for several seasons, though he's yet to make an appearance in a regular-season game.

The Rams added him to their practice squad this week. He was drafted by Baltimore in 2008 and has spent time on the practice teams for the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts, who released him following camp this month.

Patrick has been on a team's active roster. The Browns put him on the 53-man lineup at the end of the 2008 season, but he did not play. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder was a proven special teamer at Oklahoma and his performance in that area will likely determine if he's able to hang on with the Rams.

Behind starting tailback Steven Jackson, the Rams also have Kenneth Darby and Keith Toston.