Thursday, August 18, 2016
The Highlands Bluebirds football team can ease some minds when the upstart Cooper Jaguars come to town Friday at 7 p.m. to open the season. Highlands finished 8-6 last year winning district and region championships before losing 41-31 to Pulaski County in the Class 5A state semi-finals.
"It was a great day (Monday) and a great day Saturday," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "They learned a lot from the film. The one thing we learned is all the problems we have are fixable. We just have to make sure we're focused on what we're doing every day and fix those problems. (Monday) was a good first step in that direction."
Cooper finished 10-3 winning the Class 6A, District 5 title before falling 13-12 to Simon Kenton in the Region 3 championship at home. In their short history, Cooper owns two region championships losing in the 5A title game to Bowling Green in 2012 and to Pulaski County in the 5A semi-finals in 2014.
"I think we used the motivation of getting beat by Simon Kenton more during the off-season than we are now," said Randy Borchers, Cooper Head Coach. "During the off-season, we used the SK game as a motivator to get bigger and stronger because we knew we had a way to go in order to compete and beat the top tier teams in 6A. Now we are focused more on this season and we are not looking back at what we did and did not accomplish last season."
That rugged start to the 2015 began on a sunny August evening in Union. The Jaguars had a few big plays early and held off the visiting Highlands Bluebirds for a 37-13 non-district victory. Highlands trailed just 23-13 late in the fourth quarter before Cooper iced the game with two touchdowns in the final two minutes, 36 seconds.
Weinrich and Defensive Coordinator Shelby Jones said the Bluebirds need to fix some things quickly to put the bad memories of 2015 behind. That starts with the line play on both sides of the ball. St. Xavier dominated the trenches in the scrimmage.
"That's important to get started on a good note," Jones said. "We need to improve a lot this week. Obviously, if you're not improving, you're getting worse. I think we'll be in good shape."
The Bombers put a lot of pressure on Highlands senior quarterback Brady Gosney in the Bluebird Spread offense. A few tough center-quarterback exchanges did not help things there either.
"We all know each other really well because we've been around each other since freshman year," said Justin Merkle, Highlands junior offensive lineman. "We know what everyone is like so we can have trust in each other."
But when the Highlands offensive line did give Gosney enough time, he made some plays as did the running backs. Gosney hit junior Nick Veneman for a 30-yard touchdown. Gosney then hit junior Griffin Huber on the two-point conversion. Huber is the leading returning receiver from last year with 14 catches for 203 yards and a touchdown.
"That's what we saw on film," Weinrich said. "Literally, there were plays that one inch here or one inch there whether it was a step by someone blocking or a route or whatever that had a negative feeling when the play was over but could have been a positive play with little things. That's what the game is about. That's why we scrimmage (Cincinnati) St. X because if you are off an inch against St. X, they'll let you know."
Gosney will make his second career varsity start Friday. Gosney completed 11-of-34 passes for 101 yards last year with three interceptions.
"As always, Highlands is a very athletic and well-coached team," Borchers said. "They are a team that will not beat themselves and will force you to play a very solid game to have a chance to win. We know that they have two really good backs as well as some very good athletic receivers and quarterback. We must pursue well to the ball and not allow any extra yards. We have to force them to drive the length of the field and not allow any big plays."
Highlands senior running back Grant Murray had a nice run of about 30 yards in the second quarter. Murray is the leading returning rusher from last year with 534 net yards on 63 carries and six touchdowns for an average of 8.5 per touch.
The Bluebirds will again face a 4-2-5 Cooper defense. The Jaguars outgained the Bluebirds, 426-270 in total offense last year including 242-101 on the ground. Marcus Watson and Seth Keller led the Jaguars with 12 and 10 tackles respectively. They graduated along with five other Cooper starters.
But senior wide receiver and defensive back Dante Hendrix returns. Hendrix recorded one of four Cooper interceptions last year and had an 82-yard touchdown reception early in the game. Hendrix had seven interceptions for 69 return yards to lead the Jaguars to go with 26 tackles and a fumble recovery and caught 53 passes for 1,150 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The Jaguars also return their leading rusher in senior Jaden Jackson. He rushed for 933 yards on 187 carries and eight touchdowns for an average of about five per carry. Jackson also plays defensive back. Cooper graduated running back Torey Cordell-Armstrong and quarterback Nathan Brown. Senior Jarod Lonaker is expected to take over at quarterback.
"We feel very fortunate to have both (Jackson and Hendrix) returning after having very solid junior years," Borchers said. "However, they still need to prove themselves this year. We are well aware that we will not win any ballgames with just two players. We are going into the year with many of our players getting their first varsity start this Friday. We will need nine other guys to step up in order for us to have success on the offensive side of the ball. We feel they will go as far as our offensive line will take them. If Dante and Jordan are having success, our other nine guys are doing their job."
The thing that hurt Highlands on the Hendrix touchdown is senior linebacker Joe Dressman came at Brown and just missed at least hitting him before Brown got the pass off. Hendrix also had some steps on the Bluebird secondary.
"It's just a matter of playing every play," Jones said. "We made some mistakes on the back end. Teams will make you pay for it, especially off the bat. You have to be ready and keep going. Every play matters. Each and every play is it's own play. That's what we focus on. There may be times (Hendrix) goes up and gets it over our guys. You can't take everything away or you'll take nothing away. They try to get him the ball, which is what they should do."
Highlands generally likes to make sure wide receivers don't get behind them. But wide receivers can hurt defenses by coming back to the ball, making a move or two and taking it to the end zone.
"It's all about what type of play you're trying to make," said Kyle Rust, Highlands senior defensive back. "If you give up one step or one inch, it could be the difference in the whole play. That one step or that one inch could create a touchdown or a 10-yard tackle for a loss or a sack. You have to go all out on that one play so they don't create any separation from you. On a comeback, you have to make sure (receivers) are actually running the comeback because a lot of teams will run the hitch-and-go where they run the comeback, the quarterback pump-fakes then the receiver turns around and goes for a fade (pass). A corner or safety could break on (the comeback) and you could get beat for a touchdown. You have to look for the little things to know what routes they'll run. Then you have to put yourself in position to make a play."
Cooper graduated six starters total on offense. But other big names returning for the Jaguars are seniors Clay Centers at offensive lineman and linebacker, Sander Roksvag on both lines and juniors Nick Myers at running back and linebacker and Justin Schlarman at running back and defensive back.
Jones said the staff won't let the Highlands 3-4 defense take several weeks to find its identity this year. Senior defensive lineman Jacob Johnson made some nice tackles in the backfield and senior Ben Grothaus had a 24-yard interception return in the first quarter of the St. Xavier scrimmage.
On special teams. senior Cam'Ron Johnston will punt with sophomore Nick Bowman handling kick-offs and place-kicking duties. Bradley Greene will return punts and kickoffs with Veneman also returning kickoffs.
Highlands again faces the same opponents as last year at different locations as no team broke any contracts. The seven non-district games come against Kentucky's largest Class 6A.