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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Highlands "Light Years" Ahead in Spring Practice

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands wide receiver Trent Buchert (4) blocks for Nick Kendall (8) in the Class 5A state semifinals against Pulaski County last November. Buchert is one of the returning wide receivers this season.
Just stepping onto the David Cecil Memorial Stadium grass for spring football provided excitement last week.

The Highlands Bluebirds football team experienced it for the first time in two years after coming back from Spring Break. Highlands did not have that luxury a year ago when the school refurbished the turf field originally installed in 2002 because it showed signs of wearing down.

"We (coaches) were just talking that if we stopped spring ball after three days, we already feel that we're light years ahead of where we were at this time last year just having a field to practice plays," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We're confident we could successfully run a game plan with what we have now. That's huge in April."

Highlands entered the off-season off an 8-6 campaign. The Bluebirds still captured their 19th district championship in 20 years and extended the state's longest current run of consecutive region championships to nine in a row before losing 41-31 to Pulaski County in the Class 5A semifinals on Nov. 27.

Highlands focused on contact drills like blocking, tackling and getting off blocks toward the end of last week. The Bluebirds planned to practice nine times of the allowed 10 days in three weeks.

"The problem is if you don't do this in the spring, you can't do it until August," Weinrich said of contact drills. "You only have a couple days then you have a scrimmage then a game so you're limited to the time you can actually do the contact stuff and be smart about it. We can focus on the contact and fundamentals because we're not worried about a game now."

The Highlands offense hopes to work toward the balanced spread offense it is known for. The Bluebirds averaged 197.5 yards per game rushing the ball and 130.2 passing for an average of 327.7 a game. While the rushing game stayed near the same from the 2014 Class 4A state championship squad, the passing game dipped from about 237 yards a game.

The Bluebirds have four players battling for the starting quarterback role. But they return two experienced running backs in seniors-to-be Grant Murray and Jared Pulsfort. Murray rushed for 534 net yards on 63 attempts and six touchdowns last year and Pulsfort rushed 65 times for 377 yards and three scores. Highlands also returns experienced wide receivers in senior-to-be Trent Buchert and juniors-to-be Braden Posey, Griffin Huber and Nick Veneman. Huber is the leading returning receiver with 14 catches for 203 yards and a touchdown.

"Typically in the past, we were a dominant passing offense," Buchert said. "But we also have two great running backs who played a ton last year so I think we'll be able to spread it around a ton this year. We'll adjust to what the defense is doing. I'm amazed at how well we've been able to come out here and pick up where we left off last year so it's working out really well."

Another big key to the offense will be the development of the offensive line. Highlands had five senior offensive linemen last year but seniors-to-be Kyle Finfrock and Michael Davidson return along with junior-to-be Michael Dunn.

"Some of. those guys are back. Some of them had great JV years," Weinrich said. "Just because they had great JV years, they're ready to go. They just had some seniors in front of them. I don't know how much bigger they are than this time last year. But it's not even the same group of guys in terms of size from last year. They've grown inches and put on some weight so we're excited with where they are now."

The defense is also hoping to build some depth. Highlands allowed averages of 202.1 yards rushing and 154.4 passing. The main returning players on the defensive side of the ball on the defensive line are seniors-to-be Drew Bravard and Connor Myers. Bravard had 6.5 tackles for a loss for 16 yards and 2.5 sacks for a total of 27 yards and recovered two fumbles last year.

"It's a good opportunity to see guys you haven't seen," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "With the younger guys, you have to see who is physical already, see who is ready to step up. A lot of what we do is get the 11 best and find them a place. That's one of the things you miss out on when you don't do Spring (Practice). It's just exciting. The guys have a lot of energy now. It's nice to have guys not have to think just fly around and have fun."

The linebackers see rising seniors Dalton Cornett, Trey Bowden and Trent Webster return. Bowden had one sack for a loss of four yards and 1.5 tackles for a loss of two yards. Bowden also had an interception and returned two fumbles. Unless they play other sports, the players partake in the offseason conditioning.

"It's a year-round commitment. We have weights (among other) things we're doing," Jones said. "It's no lie that what you do in the off-season prepares you for what you're going to do during the season. The more kids you get to buy in, the more success you'll have. It's about getting guys to every single thing. They feel like they're missing something if they miss a practice."

Seniors-to-be Sam Taylor, Kyle Rust and Bradley Greene return in the secondary. Greene led Highlands with four interceptions last year returning them for a total of 67 yards and Taylor led the Bluebirds with three fumble recoveries for a total of 18 return yards. Taylor said the team has been working on team chemistry in spring ball.

"We just need to work on our coverages more doing everything," Taylor said. "We have the speed. We can do anything on the back end. We just have to get good at running them."

Weinrich said spring ball especially benefits the players who will be sophomores in the fall. The staff has to determine if they are ready to play on varsity or on the junior varsity. Players sometimes quit between their freshmen and sophomore seasons because they don't want to face upperclassmen.

"That's the group that spring football is good for," Weinrich said. "The guys that played varsity last year, you know what they can do. They just want to come out here, get the reps and get better running the plays. But coming in as a sophomore and playing varsity football is one of the most intimidating things that you do. But spring football helps bring those guys along in a positive way."

Highlands concludes spring practice next week. The schedule is the same this year as last year with a change in venue. The Bluebirds take on Cooper in Fort Thomas to open the season on Aug. 19.

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