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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Highlands-Campbell County preview

Bluebirds aim to eliminate shoot-outs

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior defensive back Joe Steiden (left) leaps in front of Cooper's Dante Hendrix (8) during the first quarter Friday. Steiden broke up the pass nearly coming down with an interception.
The Blue and White will take the offensive output of the season-opener any day.

But the Highlands Bluebirds football team does not want to get into the habit of getting into shoot-outs with teams, especially with four opponents from Kentucky's largest Class 6A ranked in the Associated Press Top 10 on the horizon. Highlands put the ball in the end zone on 8-of-11 possessions in the season-opening 52-42 victory over the Cooper Jaguars for about 73 percent.

The 1-0 Bluebirds take on the county rival Campbell County Camels (0-1) on Friday at 7 p.m. in Alexandria. Campbell County lost 21-7 at East Central (Indiana) on Friday. The Camels of Class 6A's District 6 are hoping to bounce back from a 1-10 campaign last year. East Central lost to Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger in the Indiana Class 4A state championship game last year.

Highlands 1997 graduate and former Bluebird running back and linebacker on the 1996 Highlands Class 3A state championship team Stephen Lickert is in his sixth as the head coach of the Camels. Campbell County won district championships in Lickert's first two seasons there.

"We got back to the basics," Lickert said. "We have several new, but very talented coaches that have focused on fundamentals. We also went back to doing what we as coaches know. Early last year, we had gotten away from who we are offensively and defensively. We are back to doing the things on both sides of the ball that made us successful."

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The Bluebirds punted on two possessions in the first half and ran out the clock on the final possession of the game. Highlands, ranked second in the Class 5A Associated Press poll, put up 488 yards of total offense on 66 plays for an average of just less than 7.4 yards per play. The Bluebirds also converted on 6-of-10 third-down conversions for 60 percent and both fourth-down tries.

The Bluebird offensive line opened up holes tiring the Cooper defense that saw players go both directions while Highlands has none. Highlands rushed for 367 yards on 53 attempts for an average of just less than seven yards a touch. Senior running back Grant Murray had 25 carries for 161 yards and two touchdowns for an average of 6.44 a carry and senior running back Jared Pulsfort had 18 carries for 131 yards and three scores averaging 7.3 a touch.

Highlands senior quarterback Brady Gosney did an excellent job guiding the Spread attack. Gosney completed 8-of-10 passes for 121 yards and rushed for 71 yards on nine carries and two touchdowns for an average of 7.9 yards per carry.

Five different players had catches for the Bluebirds. Senior wide receiver Trent Buchert led the way with three receptions for 15 yards and junior wide receiver Nick Veneman had two receptions for 64 yards on huge 3rd-and-long plays. Junior wide receiver Braden Posey and senior wide receiver Chuckie Buckler had one catch each for 21 and 19 yards respectively.

Highlands faces a more experienced senior-laden defense Friday. The Camels run a 3-3 stack defense. They are led by senior defensive back Jordan Boschert and senior linebacker Tanner Hamilton.

"Their defense is similar to what (Cincinnati St. Xavier) runs," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "You have to be patient against it. We just have to go out and get better each practice then execute in the game."

But to avoid the shoot-outs, the Highlands 3-4 defense has to do a better job stopping teams. Cooper did not punt the entire game scoring six touchdowns. Aside from losing three fumbles, the Jaguars missed a field goal on one possession and ran out of time on the last possession of the first half. Cooper converted 6-of-10 on third down for 60 percent and both times on fourth down.

The Jaguars put up 479 yards of total offense on 71 plays for an average of just more than 6.7 yards per play. Cooper rushed for 241 yards and passed for 238. The Jaguars ran a combination of shotgun spread plays and under center in the I-formation. Campbell County runs a shotgun spread offense similar to Highlands.

"I give some credit to (the Jaguars)," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "They did a good job of getting their guys moving around in different formations to get more guys where they want to run the ball and where they want to throw the ball. Their quarterback put it on the money pretty much everywhere he was throwing it. We still obviously have to get better. We shouldn't be giving up that many yards. We have to get guys trusting what we're doing, run a little bit faster downhill and just let loose a little more. We had a good practice (Monday) so we should be better. But our ultimate goal is to do what it takes to win."

Despite that, the Bluebirds have some things to build on defensively. Highlands senior defensive lineman Connor Myers recorded two sacks of Cooper quarterback Jared Lonaker. The Bluebirds also made the Jaguars go on extensive drives better in the second half. The drive on Cooper's last touchdown took six minutes, 35 seconds off the clock in the final quarter.

"We did a better job of reading our keys and sticking with our assignments toward the end of the third quarter and the fourth quarter," Myers said. "If we can put that third and fourth quarter with the first and second quarters, we can have success against any team we play."

Highlands scored 13 points off the three Cooper lost fumbles. Highlands senior linebacker Dalton Cornett recovered two including one in the end zone for a touchdown in the second quarter and senior linebacker Noah Kremer-Stegman had the other. Highlands junior defensive back Joe Steiden also nearly picked off a Cooper pass in the first quarter.

"You have to take advantage of those opportunities," Jones said. "We really try to focus on that. Last year early on if it was a tipped ball or the ball was on the ground, it didn't seem like we were getting them. Those are big game-changers. The percentage of opportunity to win the game obviously goes up with every turnover you get. Teams don't just get lucky all the time. Sometimes, you have to create those opportunities."

Campbell County had two players battle for the starting quarterback job and junior Austin Hoeh won it. The Camels have not been afraid to run quarterbacks up the middle and outside in the past. Jones said they threw the ball more in the loss at East Central and the scrimmage against Covington Catholic. But Jones also said it does not mean Hoeh may not run some against Highlands.

Hoeh threw for 206 yards including 107 to junior wide receiver Nic Mayer in the loss at East Central. The duo finished off a nine-play, 68-yard touchdown drive with a five-yard reception and senior Jacob Greer booted the extra-point kick on the first play of the second quarter for Campbell County's only touchdown. Campbell County also returns junior running back Alex Dowds. Dowds rushed for 388 yards and two touchdowns on 94 carries for an average of just more than four yards per carry last year.

Campbell County outgained East Central, 266-145 in total offense including 224-21 at halftime. But East Central still led 14-7 at halftime thanks to Dillon Watkins returning an interception 85 yards for a touchdown with 3:19 left in the first quarter and Garren Messmore returning a punt 74 yards for a touchdown. Watkins intercepted two passes in the game. Lickert said the Camels need to finish drives better and eliminate penalties inside the 5-yard line.

"We have multiple weapons that can score at any time," Lickert said. "All of the mistakes we made can be fixed. We like our team a lot. Our guys have the potential to be a very good football team. Our attitudes are good and our guys are ready."

Special teams could be huge in this game as well. Highlands senior punter Cam'Ron Johnston booted the ball inside the Cooper 10-yard-line twice in the Bluebird win and the second punt set up Cornett's fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown. The Bluebirds missed their first three point-after-touchdown kicks and a two-point conversion pass. But sophomore kicker Nick Bowman hit his last four PAT kicks.

Highlands moved to 53-9 all-time against Campbell County with the 38-15 win over the Camels in Fort Thomas last year. This will mark the fourth straight season the teams have faced off. The last time Campbell County beat Highlands was 1991 by a 12-6 score.

Lickert fell to 0-5 as a head coach against Highlands last year. Lickert served as head coach at Dayton then Covington Holmes before coming to Campbell County in 2011. The Bluebirds beat Holmes in 2007 and 2008 when Lickert was head coach there.

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