ATLANTA, Georgia — The state of North Carolina has four college football programs still practicing for postseason play and pair of local standouts will be competing on the same day for their respective teams when bowl season gets underway on Saturday, Dec. 17.
In the Air Force Reserve (AFR) Celebration Bowl, which is set to kick off at noon at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia, New Hanover alum Ramone Simpson represents the Port City when N.C. Central faces off against Grambling State. The game will air on ABC.
At 5:30p.m., on ESPN, Caleb Fuller (New Hanover) and Appalachian State face off against Toledo in the RAYCOM Media Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama.
Simpson, a redshirt sophomore, was an All-MEAC Second-Team performer for the Eagles. He led N.C. Central in rushing attempts (124), total rushing yards (630) and yards per carry (5.1). Simpson had five touchdowns during the regular season as the Eagles clinched the MEAC Championship for the third straight season to clinch a bid to this year’s AFR Celebration Bowl.
“We’re staying focused on the job right now,” said Simpson. “We’re practicing hard, getting in some extra film study. N.C. Central belongs here. We had 17 selections for all-conference this year and proud to be one of them.”
Getting an opportunity to step up in a bigger capacity this season came as a result of an injury on the depth chart, but Simpson relished the opportunity and proved his worth after being challenged by Head Coach Jerry Mack.
“Coming from high school, redshirting was very humbling experience,” Simpson added. “You have to grind, put forth the effort. It takes a lot of work to become the person and player you need to be. It’s a blessing from god with the ability to play this game. I knew I could do it. Our star running back got hurt and coached asked me to step up.”
All the long hours in the weight room, on the practice field and classroom came to fruition for Simpson on Oct. 1, 2016, when the Port City native had a season-high 19 carries for 158 total yards and a touchdown.
“After that Bethune game, I was able to take a deep breathe,” said Simpson. “This is what I’ve was working for. It feels great this year. I called it an identity year. I know why I’m here, what I’m here for and really just thank Coach Mack for the opportunity and all the coaches for pushing me to be the player I can be.”
While winning a conference championship and playing a key role on the team after working his way up the ranks, Simpson is ready to tackle the final challenge this season on national television and the Georgia Dome.
“I think about it being able to run out that tunnel at the Georgia Dome and how big that is, little old me from little old Wilmington, but I try not to think about that and want to be focused.
“The whole situation is very exciting. We’re leaving the day after my birthday for Atlanta and it just couldn’t be a better situation right now. I would just tell all the football players at New Hanover humble yourself and be coachable. Learn the ropes. It’s important to pay attention. Pick up the little things be prepared. Work ethic, grades. Approach the game like a student. Be hungry to be great.”
In Boone, Fuller improved greatly from his sophomore season to impress the coaches and earned a starting spot at defensive end for Appalachian State, who finished the year 9-3 overall and 7-1 in Sun Belt Conference. The Mountaineers closed the regular season with back-to-back one sided wins over UL Monroe and New Mexico State. App State’s defense allowed only 94 points in Sun Belt play, the fewest allowed in conference history in an eight-game schedule.
Fuller saw action in all 12 games this season. He finished with 19 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Fuller had a game-high four tackles in the Mountaineers season-opener, with a near upset over SEC program Tennessee, in Knoxville.
The bowl berth is the second in as many seasons for App State, both in the Camellia Bowl. App went 11-2 last season and claimed a 31-29 win over Ohio on a last season field goal in the 2015 Camellia Bowl. App rallied from a 24-7 deficit to set a Sun Belt record for wins in a season (11) and became the first team to win a bowl game in their first FBS bowl eligible season.