G. Michael Graham Photo. Highlands quarterback Drew Houliston (right) lines up to take the snap in the Bluebirds' Spread offensive formation in the scrimmage Friday at Louisville Trinity. The Bluebirds take on the University Christian (Fla.) Fighting Christians on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in a nationally-televised game on ESPNU.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The Highlands Bluebirds football team may have 98 seasons under its belt.
But the 99th edition opens the season with a huge first. The Bluebirds had never played a team outside Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana until Saturday when the University Christian Fighting Christians of Jacksonville (Fla.) come to town for a nationally-televised game on ESPNU at 3:30 p.m.
UC head coach David Penland was the roommate of former Highlands player T.J. Kramer at Georgetown College. Penland called Highlands Co-Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator Dale Mueller about playing this game that will feature a battle of defending state champions. The Bluebirds have won six consecutive, including the last two 4A titles, for a grand total of 22 championships while the Fighting Christians won the Florida 2A title last year, 28-10 over Dade Christian near Miami. That marked the seventh title for UC and first since 1994.
“Nobody calls us (to schedule a game) so we were just jumping up and down,” Mueller said. “Then I talked to (UC President and Superintendent Frank Ciresi) and we later made the arrangements to play the game. We’re going to play games that prepare us for the games that determine whether we win the state championship.”
The Fighting Christians finished 13-1 last year and return six starters on defense and six on offense. Penland said conditioning is important because they have players going both directions. This is also the furthest distance UC has traveled to play a game.
“My philosophy is to put the best 11 players on the field,” Penland said. “We have an up-tempo practice. We run a lot all summer. All the guys are in pretty good shape right now. They do what they need to do to maintain their ability to play both ways.”
UC graduated standout running back Jerimiah Hamlin to Richmond (Va.) University. Tight end/defensive end Marquis Haynes took his talents to the University of North Carolina and wide receiver/safety Trey Ciresi took his talents to Berry College (Ga.).
Highlands has two-platooned on offense and defense for a couple years now. The Bluebirds tend to wear down teams that have players going both directions.
The big unknown Highlands faces is UC has 21 new faces on its roster. Most of the new faces are seniors. That may raise some eyebrows. But Mueller said that’s a good reflection on the school.
“What it says is the school is doing something right,” Mueller said. “The transfer rules in Florida are not as strict as they are in Kentucky, which I’m also in agreement with. They’re going to have a heck of a football team. We don’t know anything about the 21 new guys. They haven’t had any scrimmages so there’s no film to exchange.”
The Highlands 3-4 defense led by linebacker Thomas Wrobleski and lineman Seth Hope will face a hybrid Wing-T UC offense that predicates itself on quick handoffs. Georgetown runs the Wing-T, but UC runs it out of the shotgun. Sophomore Hassein Howe returns after rushing for about 1,000 yards last year. Offensive guard Josh Allen and center Josh Nichlos also return. Allen is a UNC commit.
“It’s about the defensive scheme and following your keys like (Highlands Co-Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Brian) Weinrich tells us to do,” said Jacob Noe, Highlands junior outside linebacker. “That’s probably the best way to stop him. It’s more about reading the linemen than anything else. If you read your key, it will take you right to the ball.”
The Bluebirds will throw their spread offense at the Fighting Christians. Senior quarterback Drew Houliston will hand the ball off to running backs like Zach Harris and Jaylen Hayes or throw passes to wide receivers like Jensen Feggins, Ryan Greene or Nick True. Offensive linemen like Bryan Saunders have consistently provided solid protection for the skill players.
Highlands will face 4-4 or 6-2 UC defensive schemes. Linebacker Tamarius Bowes finished second on the team in tackles last year and free safety Jake Stoshak had eight interceptions for the Fighting Christians. He returned five of them for touchdowns.
“We know they’re going to be really fast and athletic because they’re a team from Florida,” Saunders said. “They’re definitely a really good football team. They’ll have a number of good guys they can sub in. With our hurry-up offense, we’re going to try to get them out of breathe so we can keep going and going and going.”
Highlands is dealing with some injuries. Backup junior running back Josh Watson is out for the year because of a torn right anterior cruciated ligament and senior offensive lineman Johnny Kemplin is also gone for the year because of back issues. Defensive back Griffin Urlage also said he will not play Saturday because he had a benign (non-cancerous) bone mass removed recently. But that’s why Highlands prepares many guys to come in and contribute with its roster that has almost 100 guys on it.
“Football is a game that you just have injuries so you need to be ready no matter what happens,” Mueller said. “It’s not just all football injuries. I missed the state championship game last year because my mother-in-law died. There was another coach ready to step in. If someone misses because their dog bites or a loved one passes away, we’re just geared to play whoever is next.”
This game marks the first of four Saturday games for Highlands. The Bluebirds travel to John Hardin and Paducah Tilghman in consecutive Saturdays before venturing to Covington Catholic on Sept. 28.