High School Football

Henry Clay using speed to make a run

Sam Simpson's wife, Sheri, threw him a surprise 50th birthday party earlier this summer. Family and friends feted Simpson at Henry Clay's football facility where he has been the Blue Devils' head coach since 1993.

"When you hit the big 5-0, you go, 'Whoa! Have I been around that long?'" Simpson said with a laugh.

As he prepares for his 17th season at Henry Clay — that's more than twice as long as any other football tenure in town — Simpson's trademark optimism hasn't aged at all.

The main reason for his positive outlook this year is a roster stocked with speed.

"This is the fastest team I've ever coached," Simpson said. "I've never had speed everywhere like this — on the line, at linebacker, defensive end, secondary, offensive skill positions. We should be able to capitalize on that."

There's plenty of experience to go with the quick feet. Henry Clay returns most of its defense, and several key people on offense.

Jerry Williams, who ran for the Devils' 4-by-200 and 4-by-400 relay teams that won state track titles last spring, is the quarterback. The fleet junior saw spot duty as a back-up last season.

"Besides being fast, Jerry's a good passer and good runner," Simpson said. "He's a savvy kid, too, and he's matured into a leader."

Williams will have plenty of weapons at his disposal, including flankers Branden Johnson (36 catches, 425 yards and six TDs last year), Shannon Coofer (21 catches, 181 yards, two TDs), Blake Green (another member of those state title relay teams), Matt Cox, Carwell Gardner and promising sophomore Vinny Miller.

Tight end Aaron Akidil, wingback Tyrelle Johnson and running backs Bo Brooks, Sean Bryant and Shan Howell all have terrific speed, too.

The offensive line will be anchored by 290-pound senior Elijah Barnett, 270-pound Andrew Wolter, and Doug Dauer, who replaces All-State center Samuel Simpson, the coach's son who went on to the University of Kentucky.

"We've got high hopes," Williams said. "We know we've got the talent, but the key to it all is keeping focus."

Part of that focus will be on an offense that the coaches tweaked in the off-season. Different players will be used in different packages. "Now we've got like 16 starters on offense," Simpson said.

Henry Clay's defense won't need much tinkering, not with a veteran lineup that includes Akidil (LB), Weston Johnson (LB), Tyrelle Johnson (DE), Ryan Smith (DT), Ryan McCray (FS), Justin Rivers (DT) and Cy Curnutte (SS).

How fast is the "D?"

"(Weston) Johnson runs a 4.9 (40-yard dash), and he's the slowest guy on defense," Simpson said.

"It's unbelievable the overall speed we have."

Maybe it will help the Devils get off to a fast start, unlike last year when they lost their first five games before finding their stride.

"We don't want to get in that kind of hole again," said cornerback Ryan Duzyk. "Last year we had a lot of problems on offense and defense starting off, but I think if we play together we'll come out strong this year."

Simpson took the blame for last season's slow start, saying he asked too much of his team too early.

"I coached like that was a mature team, which was a mistake. So we've really taken slow steps this year."

Henry Clay will have to pick up the pace when it opens the season against two-time defending Class 3A champion Central in the Fayette County Bowl at Tates Creek.

The rest of the schedule is no picnic, either.

Besides playing their city rivals, the Devils' new district includes Clark County and Madison Central, and their non-district schedule features Simon Kenton, last year's 6A runner-up.

That's enough of a challenge to age any coach, but Simpson isn't worried. As far as he's concerned, coaching football means it's sunny, even on the shady side of 50.

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