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Thursday, July 21, 2016

2016 Highlands Football Preview: Running backs

Four returning running backs bring different styles to table

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior Grant Murray takes off for a touchdown in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs against Woodford County last November. Murray is the leading returning rusher with 534 yards on 63 carries for six touchdowns and an average of 8.5 per carry.
Note: This is the second of many football previews breaking down the positions leading up to the season.

One huge part of the success of the Highlands Bluebirds football team's success over the years has been offensive efficiency.

The Bluebirds have run 707 or more plays during the season nine times in school history including the last five seasons. Highlands does not run up to the line of scrimmage once the play is over and try to snap it as quickly as possible quite as much in Brian Weinrich's two years as head coach like they did in the later years when Dale Mueller was head coach. But the Bluebirds have continued to maintain that consistency on offense by moving the chains.

Two years ago, Class 4A state champion Highlands set a Kentucky state record for the most offensive plays in a season with 932 gaining 6,565 yards for an average of just more than seven yards per play. Last year, Highlands ran 781 plays good for fourth in school history and 17th in Kentucky history. But the total yardage dipped to 4,588.

The Highlands running game was about on par with the 2014 team averaging 197.5 per game compared to about 200 in 2014. But the running backs hope to help Highlands return to those balanced days making things tough on opposing defenses. The Bluebird passing game averaged 130.2 yards per game last year compared to nearly 238 in 2014.

Highlands has had a running back go for more than 1,000 yards on the ground four times since 2012. Last year, senior Nick Kendall rushed for 1,485 yards on 226 carries and 21 touchdowns for an average of 6.6 per carry. Kendall took his talents to NCAA Division III Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Quarterback Donovan McCoy and Zach Harris rushed for 1,144 and 1,001 respectively on the 2012 Class 4A state championship squad and Harris ran for 1,103 in 2013.

Highlands did not have a 1,000-plus rusher on the 2014 state championship team. But senior Griffin Urlage came close with 984 and quarterback Beau Hoge ran for 865.

Highlands has four running backs who could put up similar numbers this year in senior Grant Murray, Jared Pulsfort and juniors Larry Wilson and Logan Aubrey. Murray rushed for 534 yards on 63 carries and six touchdown for an average of 8.5 a touch and Pulsfort ran for 377 yards on 65 carries for an average of 5.8 per touch.

Murray and Pulsfort also had some receptions last year. Murray had three catches for 11 yards and Pulsfort had three for four yards. But Weinrich also said running backs have to land solid blocks as well when the ball is not in their hands or even carry out great fakes.

"The running back is really one of the most complex positions," Weinrich said. "They have to be able to do a little bit of all the other positions combined. If you can find some guys who can do that then you got something. We've got a bunch of them with our two seniors and two juniors. All four of them had great springs. Their art (playing style) is a little bit different than the other. But they all work extremely hard. We also have some young guys with up sides."

Weinrich and staff encourage the players not to try to be totally like past great Highlands running backs such as Harris or Austin Collinsworth. Collinsworth rushed for 1,503 yards and 23 touchdowns on 172 carries for an average of just more than 8.7 yards per touch on the undefeated 2009 Class 5A state champion Bluebird squad.

"You just keep focusing on you and the rest will take care of itself and you'll make your mark as far as who you are," Weinrich said. "Don't try to be someone else because we've had players over the years that have tried to be the guy in front of them. That isn't always what's best for them so each guys has to find out what they do and do it the best that they can do."

Murray said he's been working on becoming bigger, faster and stronger in the off-season. He said spring ball helped a lot there. Highlands did not have spring practice in 2015 because the school had to install new turf at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.

"I don't we realized how much it was necessary to help new guys coming in get used to the offense and help the defense get used to the plays as well," Murray said. "Spring ball helps a team tremendously develop into a team. We missed out on that last year and it hurt us early in the season. We didn't start out as well as we wanted to."

Pulsfort has worked on running low and staying balanced with the football. His size has a lot to do with that. In a first-round Class 4A playoff win over Boyd County, Jaylen Hayes ran through three defenders on his way to the end zone by staying low and using his power.

"If you know you need the extra yards, you should definitely try to run through (defenders)," Pulsfort said. "(Running low) will give me the extra edge if I have to run through someone. Since I'm a taller running back, it would be a lot easier to bring me down so if I bring myself to a smaller size, it will be harder to tackle me."

Wilson and Aubrey helped the Highlands junior varsity squad to a 7-2 mark last year. The Bluebirds lost just to Simon Kenton and Cincinnati La Salle. Wilson rushed for 12 touchdowns on junior varsity.

The two saw limited action on the varsity. Wilson had 14 carries for 62 yards and scored a touchdown against Grant County. Wilson said he's been working on his footwork and endurance in the offseason.

"I'm pretty excited to do my part," Wilson said. "We got a lot of (repetitions) in on JV. That trained us to get our fears gone and get ready for varsity. Going in (on varsity) a few times got the butterflies out. I think it's going to be a good year."

Aubrey ran the ball six times on varsity last year for 35 yards. He said he's really been working on his speed in the offseason. It helps that Highlands does not have players playing on both offense and defense for the most part. Players are able to focus on one position the entire practice as opposed to practicing one position for so many minutes then going to another.

"You really get to focus on your skill set and what you need to improve on," Aubrey said. "I think that's a big part of how we do things. It's about keeping everybody fresh."

The season for Highlands opens Aug. 19 against Cooper in Fort Thomas. Game time is 7 p.m.

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