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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Highlands experimented with players going both directions in spring ball

G. Michael Graham Photo. Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich (right) gives instructions during a recent spring practice. The Bluebirds just concluded 10 days of spring ball.
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

Aside from the usual transition, not much changed in spring practice for the Blue and White.

The only noticeable change was the absence of the retired 20-year veteran Head Coach Dale Mueller. Mueller retired after last year that saw Highlands go 13-2 and finish Class 4A runner-up to Collins. The Bluebirds went 250-36 during Mueller’s tenure, won 11 state championships and finished runner-up three times.

Highlands promoted 19-year assistant and veteran Defensive Coordinator Brian Weinrich to Head Coach in January. Highlands welcomed new assistant Zach Deaton, a 2000 Highlands graduate, and promoted assistant Shelby Jones to Defensive Coordinator. Weinrich said he’s been working with the offense about 99 percent of the time.

Weinrich said the approach to spring football has not changed. The Bluebirds try to get better each and every day and keep things simple.

“We’ve had a good plan in place since spring ball started,” Weinrich said. “We’re a little more physical than we are during the season. But at the same time, we try to take care of the players and not overdo them.”

Teams are allowed 10 two-hour practices in a three-week window per Kentucky High School Athletic Association rules. Highlands is experimenting with players going on both sides of the ball. It’s been a few years since players have played on both offense and defense.

For instance, rising junior Bo Hebel worked out on the offensive line after starting on the defensive line last year. Rising seniors Jensen Feggins and Griffin Urlage worked out at defensive back and running back respectively after playing wide receiver and defensive back respectively last year.

Feggins led an explosive offense that averaged 50.6 points and 444.5 yards a contest. Feggins recorded a team-high 51 catches for 1,100 yards and 15 touchdowns. Urlage led Highlands with three interceptions.

“We’re still sold on completely two-platooning,” Jones said. “We feel like there may be some guys that can help us in certain situations. It might be silly to have guys sitting on the sidelines when they can help us in certain spots.”

Highlands only saw a few other teams that two-platoon such as Campbell County and Lexington Catholic. Collins went to it during the season, but still had its best players on the field at certain points of the game.

Hebel gives Highlands another option on the offensive line will lose 12 players to graduation. The only returning starter there will be rising senior Kyler Dalton.

“I’m just giving them any tips as I can,” Dalton said. “With this whole new offense, I’m starting off just as much as they are. We hope everyone steps up and we put together a good offensive line this year. It’s not going to be as fast-paced. But we hope to put together drives so we have to get our stamina up among other things. We have to get out of our stances fast, keep in front of our guy and get downfield.”

The Bluebirds will be bringing up offensive linemen from the junior varsity squad that finished 6-1 last year. Candidates to fill in the open offensive line positions include rising juniors Evan Richardson, Carson Haas and Nathan Raleigh.

“I think the biggest adjustment to varsity will be the responsibility of the whole thing,” Richardson said. “We have to keep up with the pace and everyone’s expectations of what you’re supposed to do as an offensive lineman. The seniors left with an intensity and culture we’re going to have to match.”

The Highlands defense yielded averages of 22.4 points and 323.1 yards per game. The Bluebirds struggled in big games against balanced offenses. Weinrich said injuries had a lot to do with that after the season.

“We’re just trying to stay as healthy as possible, especially for the biggest games,” said Andrew Abner, Highlands rising senior defensive back. “We will probably do more mental reps for the big games and not practice as much. They won’t be as physical. We will go over things and make sure we have them down.”

But Jones said he liked what he’s saw in spring practice. Highlands returns a number of key players such as rising senior linebacker Rocco Pangallo. Pangallo finished second on the team last year with two fumble recoveries.

“So far, the guys have been running around with excitement,” Jones said. “That’s kind of what we’re asking from them now. We want every single one of them to run to the ball. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Highlands will continue to run the 3-4 defense. Rising senior linebacker Daniel Kremer returns after recording three tackles for a loss last year. He is aware that people are saying the Bluebirds will not be as dominant as they’ve been in recent years with all the changes.

“It’s the same type of (Pittsburgh) Steelers defense,” Kremer said. “We have the same concepts against the run. We’re working hard in the offseason like we have for a while. We’ve been good for several decades so I don’t the graduation of seniors is going to change anything.”

Highlands opens the season on Aug. 29. The Bluebirds travel to Alexandria to face the Campbell County Camels.

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