By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The freshman season may tough for many football players across the country.
But for the Highlands Bluebirds, the sophomore year is perhaps the toughest season because they have to make some big adjustments. The biggest one is facing players two years older on the varsity level. Throughout their time in the instructional Fort Thomas Youth Football League, they faced players their age and a year older or younger.
Then they faced other freshmen during their freshmen campaigns. During that season, it becomes about winning and learning the Highlands schemes.
“The game pace is way faster,” said Jensen Feggins, Highlands junior wide receiver. “If you do get playing time, you need to stay humble and keep getting better and better every year. Going into your senior year, you’ll then be 10 times better than you were as a sophomore.”
Another big adjustment has helped the deeply talented Bluebirds win six straight state championships. Players play on just offense or defense starting as sophomores after going both ways as freshmen.
“They like the idea of being good at something as opposed to semi-mastering two things,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Co-Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “Our linebackers are gearing toward being better linebackers all the time. Our quarterbacks don’t have to stand around while we’re doing a defensive practice. They’re working on being better quarterbacks all the time.”
Mueller previously said a big challenge for the staff is figuring out whether to put the sophomores on the varsity or junior varsity levels. The sophomores often provide depth. Nearly 100 players will be on the roster this fall.
“We evaluate the players all the time,” Mueller said. “We see them in weight lifting. We have guys that play basketball, swimming and track. We’ll go to those games and evaluate them there. We know them so well so we can see when they’re ready to do something.”
A number of sophomores contributed last year. Defensive back Griffin Urlage finished second on the team with three interceptions and returned them for a total of 92 yards. That included the team’s only interception return for a touchdown – nearly a 60-yard touchdown in the season finale at Ryle. Feggins had nine receptions for 232 yards and tied with three other teammates for third on the team with four touchdowns.
Highlands is so deeply talented that freshmen rarely play on varsity. But Jared Dougherty handled kickoff duties last year. Dougherty is the first freshman to letter on varsity since current Highlands assistant and freshman head coach Nick Behymer did in 1998.
“You just have to keep working hard every day,” Dougherty said. “You obviously need to know the plays or you won’t play. You have to learn them and understand what’s going on. We go over plays every day.”
The coaching staff and current players constantly talk to the underclassmen about continuing the work ethic displayed by previous players to keep the tradition going. The last thing anyone associated with the program wants to see develop is a sense of entitlement that has plagued other once-proud programs across the country.
“If you’re going to win, you have to do the things required of it,” Mueller said. “We’re not geared toward winning the state championship if these things go our way. We’re geared to win the state championship if everything goes against us. If our 15 best players get hurt, we’re still going to gear toward the state championship.”
That work ethic starts in the weight room. The eighth graders begin lifting with the returning players in the winter before their freshmen years. They then play a freshmen schedule against tough competition like Covington Catholic, Cincinnati Moeller and Louisville Trinity. They then go through another offseason of the winter weights.
“For three straight months, you just go into the weight room and get bigger, faster and stronger,” Feggins said. “It helps us in every aspect at every position.”
Lifting weights may not be the funnest thing to do. But Highlands senior tight end Nick True encourages players to work out with friends.
“We’re almost like brothers when we’re lifting,” True said. “When you’re with the right people lifting, you motivate each other. I’m really good friends with many of the linemen. We lift each other up.”
By their sophomore years, the players have two winters of conditioning in and have faced the best in the area as freshmen. That makes many of them prepared to contribute on varsity. But the ones that are not ready for the varsity level often dress up and play in the games that Highlands holds a huge late into the third and fourth quarters so they get more experience.
“Our guys do that so well because they have that type of background where they can battle through tough times,” Mueller said. “They’re from the kind of families that value trying hard and not giving up.”
Some of this year’s class may earn their debuts on national television this year. The season-opener in Fort Thomas takes place on Aug. 24 against the defending Florida Class 2A champion University Christian Fighting Christians of Jacksonville (Fla.) at 2:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
True Verbally Commits to WKU:
True made his college choice a few weeks ago by verbally committing to play at Western Kentucky University. The Hilltoppers are coming off a 7-6 campaign last year.
“I really loved the coaching staff. I really like they’re playing style,” True said. “I also like the direction of the program. I think they’re going to be really good the next couple of years.”
True did have other teams looking at him, but only Western offered him a scholarship. That list included Bowling Green (Ohio), Ohio State and Vanderbilt.
“All I tell them is to do what’s best for them,” Mueller said of the recruiting process. “College scholarships are hard to get. If you get offered one and you don’t take it then, it may not be there months from now. They may offer 100 guys scholarships when they only have 20. Each situation is different.”
True comes in off a highly-productive year blocking and catching passes for the Bluebirds in their balanced offense. His 6-foot-6-inch frame will give the new starting quarterback a huge target in the offense this fall. True caught 15 passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns last year.
Former Louisville, Arkansas and Atlanta Falcons Head Coach Bobby Petrino took over the program in the offseason after Willie Taggert took the job at the University of South Florida. Some question Petrino’s integrity after he lost his job at Arkansas in 2012 because of an extramarital affair. But that was not a concern for True.
“I’ve talked to him and he’s still a good guy,” True said. “There’s stuff that happened, but I think I can still give him a chance.”
Petrino, 52, owns an overall record of 75-26 in the college years. He guided the Cardinals to the Conference-USA championship in 2004 and the Big East crown in 2006.
True can now focus on his senior season. He said he will also play basketball in the winter giving new head coach Kevin Listerman and staff some height to build around near the basket.