Sunday, August 3, 2014

Highlands hopes to again use depth to its advantage

Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands junior Jared Dougherty punts the ball in last year's Class 4A state championship game against Collins. Dougherty returns after punting, kicking off and handling extra-point and field-goal duties last year.

By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

The offense put up its high-octane numbers last year.

But the defense did not dominate at the high level the Highlands Bluebirds football team is used to despite its depth. Injuries played a huge part of that. Many guys played, but not at full strength.

“When you play a game where you run and bang each other, you get some bangs and bruises. That’s part of it,” said Brian Weinrich, New Highlands Head Coach. “That’s why you hope to develop some depth. That way if that ever happens, guys can fill in for them.”

The Bluebirds look to again see about 100 players on the sidelines in the fall. Most will play just one direction. Some players have switched positions and others will go both ways on certain plays.

That is a big thing Highlands learned from Collins last year after losing 37-34 in the Class 4A state championship game. The staff’s big philosophy has been to keep things simple in recent years.

“We try to implement our base foundation as early as we can so the guys can be doing it over and over and over and become comfortable with what we’re doing,” said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. “(That way) a bunch of guys in practice don’t just sit on the sidelines. We always say mental reps are important. But we also want to get them the opportunity to get those reps.”

The Bluebirds graduated 32 seniors from last year’s team. They also saw longtime Head Coach Dale Mueller retire and wide receiver Jensen Feggins move to Warren Central to play for his father Howard who became the head coach there.

The Bluebirds averaged 50.6 points per game scoring in the 70s four times last year. The vaunted Highlands offense averaged 444.5 yards per contest.

Senior Beau Hoge will move from wide receiver to quarterback this fall in place of the graduated Drew Houliston and junior Austin Hergott will back him up. Hoge completed 35-of-56 passes for 735 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. Hoge started the season finale against Warren Central and led Highlands to the 71-69 victory. Hergott completed 9-of-24 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown last year.

The Bluebirds return a number of wide receivers in their one-back spread formation. The leading returning wide receiver is senior Alex Veneman. Veneman had 35 catches for 890 yards and 11 touchdowns. Senior Justin Weyer, Cashel Coughlin and junior Eric Miller also return.

“We have a lot of guys who have stepped up this year,” Miller said. “In every aspect from catching the ball to blocking, this program really trains you well to be the best we can be.”

Highlands will need some players to step forward and fill in for graduated running backs Zach Harris and Jaylen Hayes. Harris rushed for 1,121 yards and 24 touchdowns last year. The leading returning rusher is junior Nick Kendall. Kendall rushed for 307 yards on 27 attempts and three touchdowns last year. Seniors Josh Watson and Griffin Urlage could also help out there. Watson missed last season because of a torn Anterior Cruciated Ligament. Griffin played defensive back last year and led the team with three interceptions.

The biggest question mark offensively will be on the offensive line. Twelve offensive linemen graduated from last year’s team including Tyler Schweitzer, Scott Turner, Bryan Saunders and Sean Lemmons. Only senior Kyler Dalton returns with extensive varsity experience there.

Bo Hebel could help there as well as the defensive line. Junior Carson Haas, Nathan Raleigh and Evan Richardson could also fill in those key roles.

“Last year, the offensive line had a lot of size,” Haas said. “Now, we’re trying to make up for how we lost a lot of that. We’re trying to get stronger, faster and smarter than we were last year. We hope to outmaneuver (opponents) essentially.”

Defensively, Highlands allowed 22.4 points per game and an average of 323.1 yards a contest. The Bluebirds struggled some against balanced offenses. They will still run the 3-4 set.

“We’ve got some new concepts somewhat with it,” Jones said. “But we’re going to take the base foundation of what we’ve been building on because it’s basically how we’ve been developing our players to play the defense that we want to play. We’ll obviously have some new wrinkles. We’ve moved some guys around and put them in different positions.”

Seth Hope, Nathan Merkle and Braden Hicks graduated on the defensive line. But players like seniors D.J. Mills, Matt Gall and John Abner return there.

“Basically, we’re just doing the same thing we did last year,” Mills said. “We’re doing the same drills. All the younger guys are stepping up and doing what they need to do so we can be as good as we were last year or better.”

Thomas Wrobleski, Michael Ayers, Joey Kruse, Jake Parker and Joey Cochran graduated at linebacker. But players like seniors Rocco Pangallo, Brady Murray, Jacob Noe and junior Connor Welsch are vying for playing time there. Pangallo finished second on the team with two fumble recoveries last year.

The secondary also returns a lot of experience. Jackson Bardo and Alex Shadle graduated there. But Andrew Abner, Grayson Heck and James Hinkel return with experience from last year.

“We just try not to give up the big play,” Heck said. “We watch (opponents’) feet and waist. When they come off the ball, we need to (react) come off fast and stay with them.”

Highlands takes on Louisville Trinity in its annual scrimmage on Aug. 15. Game time is 7 p.m.

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