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Thursday, August 11, 2016

2016 Highlands Football Preview: Defense

Bluebirds aim for more aggressive, disciplined defensive play

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior Trey Bowden (17) returns at linebacker this year.
Editor's Note: This is the final preview before the football season begins.

The defense took its share of lumps early in the season in the 1-5 start.

But the hope is more experience returning will change that this season. The Highlands Bluebirds football team saw just starters Tyler Robinson at nose tackle and Austin Beal at cornerback return from the 2014 Class 4A state championship team.

But more than half the starters from last year return. Team averaged 26.9 points per game, 202.1 yards rushing and 154.4 passing against Highlands last year.

"We were young last year as far as experience," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "We weren't young grade-wise. I think it makes a difference when you have guys who have been playing for a couple years. That should help us especially early when some of the guys are getting their feet wet and getting used to how things are going to work."

Highlands finished 8-6 last year winning district and region championships in Class 5A. The Bluebirds built a 31-14 lead against Pulaski County in the third quarter of the state semi-finals. But the Maroons rallied for a 41-31 win to advance to the state championship game.

"I'm just really looking forward to being back at it," said Crosley New, Highlands junior defensive back. "We really feel like we missed some opportunities losing to Pulaski County last year. Really, everyone is coming back with a vengeance because we have some unfinished business. Right now, we're trying to execute on both sides of the ball."

New played in the season-opening loss at Cooper but left the game out for the year with an injury. New returns with an experienced secondary led by seniors Bradley Greene, Kyle Rust and Sam Taylor. Greene led Highlands with four interceptions for a return of 67 yards and Taylor had a team-high three fumble recoveries with 18 return yards.

Highlands graduated Beal, Austin Mayhew, Taylor Perez and Thomas Wood in the backfield. Beal took his talents to Lindsey Wilson University. But seniors John Buchanan, Ben Grothaus, Michael Siska and juniors Logan Seiple, Joe Steiden and Harrison Traylor could also make a difference there. They have a huge role in making sure teams don't throw the ball over top of them.

"We don't want to give up any big plays," Jones said. "We try to make you play a whole lot of plays and hope within those plays, you'll make a mistake."

The Highlands staff moved a few defensive backs to different positions. Seniors Carter Burke and Noah Kremer-Stegman moved to linebacker spots and Cameron Hays moved to wide receiver.

Burke and Kremer-Stegman will add to the depth at linebacker led by seniors Trey Bowden and Trent Webster. Seniors Dalton Cornett, Luke Meyer, Luke Ross along with juniors Korbyn Poole, Logan Sparks and sophomore Nick Bowman are also hoping to make an impact there. Highlands graduated Luke LindemanJared Dougherty, Joe Dressman, Hank Johnson, Conner Welsch and Ben Ziegler from last year's linebacking depth. Dougherty is playing at Lindsey Wilson.

Jones and the defensive staff are big on not overloading the players with too many instructions. He wants the defenders to know their responsibilities within their 3-4 defensive scheme and let loose. That mostly eliminates the thinking.

The defensive line has the responsibility of putting pressure on quarterbacks and disrupting plays in the backfield. Tyler Robinson did that well for the Bluebirds. Robinson is walking on at the University of Louisville. Defensive linemen Jordan Johnson, Dalton Mallery, Caleb Mullikin and Tyler Sexton graduated and Drew Bravard transferred to Newport Central Catholic. But seniors Jacob Johnson, Bruce Seidel, Connor Myers and juniors Nick Blitz, Keaton Huddleston and Nate Davis hope to make an impact up front.

A huge emphasis every year is conditioning. The Highlands defense played 867 plays last year. Pulaski County wore down Highlands in the state semi-final game.

"That's important regardless of what you're trying to do," Jones said. "You want to have your guys in shape so they can play as many plays as possible. Early, it's anyone's guess. When you're dealing with the heat, you just don't know what's going to happen."

Highlands opens the season Aug. 19 against Cooper. Game time is 7 p.m.

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