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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Towles, Sheehan, Gruenschlaeger help raise Big Blue Expectations





Contributed Photos. From top, Highlands 2012 graduates Patrick Towles, Austin Sheehan and 2011 Newport Central Catholic graduate Jack Gruenschlaeger (71) hope to make the Kentucky Wildcats SEC contenders. All three are currently working on the Kentucky version of the Spread offense.


By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

Blue Blue Nation seems content when the football team qualifies for and wins a bowl game.

But Patrick Towles, Austin “Ozzy” Sheehan and Jack Gruenschlager are not used to that coming from two state high school football powers in Northern Kentucky. Towlesand Sheehan, 2012 Highlands graduates, won four state championships in high school going 58-2 in that span and Gruenschlager, a 2011 Newport Central Catholic graduate, helped the Thoroughbreds to the 2A state championship in 2010. NewCath finished state runner-up his freshman and sophomore year going 46-12 in those four years.

Thus, last season did not bode well for them. The University of Kentucky Wildcats posted a 2-10 record going winless in the Southeast Conference. Thus, the school fired Head Coach Joker Phillips and brought in Mark Stoops. The Wildcats finished 5-7 two years ago.

“It was awful. Not to fault any of the players, but the mindset wasn’t where it needed to be,” Towles said.
“We lost to Louisville (32-14) the first game of the year. It wasn’t like it was okay. But it was like, ‘Oh, we’ll get them next year.’ At Highlands, if we lost, we treated it like it was the end of the world. I feel like if we want to compete for an SEC and ultimately a national championship, that’s the mindset they need to have.”

Those players plan to do their part to make the Wildcats SEC contenders. Kentucky is one of three teams not including 2012 newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M that has not played in the SEC Championship game. The other two are Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.

Stoops came in from Florida State. Stoops, brother of Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops, served as Defensive coordinator at Florida State the previous three seasons.

“They expect the best and don’t take anything less than that,” Towles said of the new coaching staff. “If we have an okay practice, he lets us know that. Sugarcoating things isn’t going to help anybody. (Stoops) demands respect and our ultimate effort.”

Stoops and staff have implemented an offense familiar to Highlands and NewCath fans in the Spread. The Bluebirds run the shotgun formation and the Thoroughbreds line up the quarterback mostly behind center. Thus, the three do not have to spend much time adjusting to new sets. Kentucky ran a Pro-Style offense under Phillips.

That gives Towles a needed edge to win the starting quarterback job. The 6-foot-5-inch, 234-pound Political Science Major is battling Jalen Whitlow and Max Smith for the spot.

“It’s going well,” Towles said. “Whenever you have people competing, you have people improving. With everyone improving, our team is definitely going to improve. Last year, our win-loss record was not acceptable. There’s no second place in college football. It takes effort to put wins on the board. What we’re doing now is leaning toward that.”

The big thing Towles wants to do in the spring is improve his release. Kentucky Offensive Coordinator Neal Brown said Towles has done that.

“Patrick is progressing well,” Brown said. “He is really intelligent, wants to do well and worked hard in preparation for this spring.”

Towles is already familiar with Sheehan. But he’s trying to get more familiar with his other teammates as well. Towles played in five games last year and completed 19-of-40 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown. On his first career drive against Mississippi State, Towles competed all five passes for 71 yards finalized with a 32-yard score to La’Rod King. Towles also completed 4-of-6 passes for 47 yards in Kentucky’s win over Samford.

“I’ve really started to get comfortable with (the new offense),” Towles said. “We have a young team. I ran it in a scrimmage and it went okay. It was the first time I ran it since high school.As you get more comfortable with an offense knowing where people are going to be, it’s easier to quicken things up, which I’m starting to do.”

Sheehan redshirted last year. But he did dress twice for home games after earning Scout Team Most Valuable Player honors two times. Sheehan is also thrilled with the offense because he comes from a balanced offense at Highlands.

“I like it a lot. It’s going to give every receiver alot of chances,” Sheehan said. “It’s always good to see balls flyingthrough the air.”

Sheehan stands at 5-9, 160 pounds. The Business Management major wants to get faster and put on some pounds because he’s not the biggest guy on the field. But he’s been running a lot of routes with the starters and the coaching staff has given him some great advice.

“Number one, you have to be coachable,” said Tommy Mainord, Kentucky Wide Receivers Coach. “You have to understand your abilities and play to your strengths, which can give you an advantage on the field. Austin is doing well. He has the ability to do some things, and as a freshman, he has some upside.”

Jack Gruenschlaeger walked on the team in 2011. He saw action in all 12 games mostly on special teams. He stands at 6-11, 340. That size has its advantages and disadvantages.

“My reach definitely helps out, especially in pass protection. But at the same time, I have to work harder to get low,”Gruenschlaeger said. “It’s a double-edged sword. I just need to work on it. If I ever get the chance to go in, I hope not to stick out like a sore thumb. I want to go in there and do my job.”

The Business Management major wants to get his weight around 320 pounds. The Wildcats will again do zone blocking like they did last year. The Thoroughbreds do a lot of man blocking.

“Jack has a great work ethic and we’re pleased with his progress to this point,” said UK Offensive Line Coach John Schlarman. “Keeping pad level low enough is a challenge for someone his size. That comes from bend in the knees and the hips and working on flexibility. That’s something that can improve in the off-season during the workout program.”

The annual Blue and White Spring Game is Saturday at 7 p.m. at Commonwealth Stadium. The IMG Sports Radio Network will broadcast the game.

Special Olympics Experience:

In February, Sheehan and his teammates partook in two basketball scrimmages against two Special Olympics teams in the Lexington Wildcats and Lexington Defenders.

Kentucky fullback Cody Jones sent out a mass text and Sheehan was one of many Wildcats to show up.

“It was a lot of fun. When we showed up, they were all smiles,” Sheehan said. “Their parents were there and their brothers were there. It was a great experience seeing how being a football player affects people. Those two hours made those kids days. Afterwards, we sat down with them, talked to them and gave them autographs. We’re going to try to do it again in the fall with flag football.”

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