G. Michael Graham Photo. The Highlands Bluebirds go through conditioning drills in a recent practice. The Bluebird defense allowed an average of just more than 18 points per game last year and hopes for similar results this year.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The offseason conditioning program benefits the Highlands Bluebirds defense in more ways than one.
The defenders find themselves on the field a lot more than most teams because the offense scores so quickly. But the Bluebirds still managed to hold their own on their way to a state-record sixth consecutive state championship last year. The Highlands defense stayed on the field for about 60-70 plays while most defenses stay on the field maybe 40-50.
Opponents scored just 272 points for an average of just more than 18 points a game while the Bluebird offense averaged just more than 52 points per game. Highlands yielded 2,651 yards rushing and 1,378 passing for a total of 4,029. That’s especially why the Bluebird defenders take pride in offseason conditioning workouts and also helps they only have to play one direction.
“We pride ourselves on being in great condition,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Co-Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator. “That’s our number one focus. We want to be physically ready for each game. We want to get the ball to our offense as quickly as we can. There’s a chance we’re going to be out there more. Our offense is not going to grind it out like another type of offense would. That means we’re going to have little more fun.”
The Bluebirds shut out Collins and Pendleton County last year in addition to holding Mason County without a touchdown. They held opponents to 27 percent (50-of-188) on third down and 33 percent (19-of-57) on fourth down. Highlands recorded 34 sacks resulting in 264 yards and 79 tackles for a loss for 208 yards lost.
“We’re just sticking together and working as a team,” said Joey Kruse, Highlands Senior Linebacker. “It’s a matter of continuing to do what we’ve been doing. The hard conditioning we do make the games easier.”
Highlands would like to score more defensive touchdowns this year after scoring just one last year. That came when junior defensive back Griffin Urlage returned an interception about 60 yards for a touchdown at Ryle on the last play of the regular season.
Highlands almost returned a fumble for a touchdown at Harrison County. But the Bluebirds spiked the ball at the 2-yard line out of the end zone giving the ball back to the Thorobreds.
“You have to channel your energy properly,” Weinrich said. “You have to focus on the job at hand. We as coaches don’t want to get too or too low in any situation. You don’t want to pull the reigns too tight. But you have to let the horses run. You want to keep them under control.”
Highlands will again run its vaunted 3-4 front. The Bluebirds graduated Gabe Schultz and Austin Peterson on the defensive line, but do return plenty of depth there led by seniors Seth Hope, Austin Greene and Nathan Merkle. Hope recently verbally committed to Cornell University. Hope led the Bluebirds with 11.5 sacks last year for 106 yards including five in the state championship win over Collins.
“As a defensive lineman, it’s all about footwork,” Merkle said. “You have to read offensive linemen, come off the ball strong and control your gap. It takes good balance to move your feet and make the tackle.”
Opponent had a difficult time running outside on the Bluebirds. Only Elder had a huge enough offensive line to pound the ball between the tackles. But the Bluebirds hope the extra weight-lifting will alleviate that this year.
Plenty of depth also returns in the linebacker spots led by seniors Thomas Wrobleski, Joey Cochran and junior Brady Murray. Wrobleski recorded 7.5 sacks resulting in 69 yards lost and Murray led the Bluebirds with two fumbles recovered.
The Highlands secondary often excelled in pass coverage allowing the linemen and linebackers to focus on stopping the run. The Bluebirds do a great job getting their hands up to knock away passes without making contact with wide receivers.
“You want to come in on the inside,” said Andrew Abner, Highlands junior defensive back. “Your whole body is still there in case you miss it.”
Blake Schutte, Ben Streeter, Quentin Murray, Jake Lester and Jake Heck graduated in the secondary. But in addition to Urlage and Abner, Highlands does return players like senior Jackson Bardo, Alex Shadle, Michael Ayers and junior Grayson Heck in the backfield.
Highlands picked off 14 passes and returned them 111 yards and recovered 15 opponent fumbles. The Bluebirds finished a plus-4 in the takeaway/giveaway turnover category.
Highlands only had to punt 20 times last year and the Bluebirds hope to keep that statistic low. Sophomore Jared Dougherty kicked off most of last year. He’ll do that and handle the punting duties.
Senior Evan Allen returns to take on the extra-point kicking duties. The Bluebirds made 85-of-97 extra-point tries for 88 percent.
The Bluebirds open the season Aug. 24 at 3:30 p.m. on ESPNU against University Christian (Fla.) of Jacksonville. This will be the first time the Bluebirds have played a team outside Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.