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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Running on Smooth Cylinders

Highland hopes to fix alignment issues in offseason

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior Nick Veneman hauls in a pass against Louisville Doss during the 2016 season. Highlands hopes to build better team chemistry in the offseason.
Another football season passed into the record books when the Kentucky High School Athletic Association crowned six more state champions over the weekend.

But for the second straight season, the Highlands Bluebirds did not make the trip to Bowling Green. Two seasons after winning their seventh of 23 state championships in eight seasons, the Bluebirds find themselves building back to that point coming off their first losing season since 1955 at 3-8 overall.

But while Highlands can't change what happened in the fall, lessons can be learned from it and steps can be taken over the next several months even before spring football to improve for 2017. That process began shortly after Highlands lost 52-32 at Louisville Doss in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.

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"Once you step away from a season, you let the emotional side of it calm down," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "I think coaches like to sit down one day and watch the whole season all the way through. You ask questions like, 'Why didn't we do that more and why didn't we do that less.' You take a lot of notes, let it digest for a while and get ready to go back at it. It's a constant re-evaluation phase."

Highlands Freshman Head Coach Brady Dowling played on on the 2006 squad that lost to Covington Catholic in the second round of the playoffs. He started at center on the 2007 team that won the first of a state record six in a row.

"The talent in the class above me and my class was extraordinary," Dowling said. "It was frustrating to see all that talent not be successful. After that junior year, our class really got together and came to some hard truths as to why we weren't successful. Just the fact that we weren't going to let the things that prevented us from being successful prevent us from being successful (in 2007). That's how we handled everything. We decided to go about our business and we weren't going to let anybody get in the way of that."

The biggest lesson comes in the form of the word alignment. New University of Texas Head Coach Tom Herman said that's the biggest lesson he learned from Urban Meyer while Offensive Coordinator at Ohio State. Herman told ESPN everyone involved in the program from the top to the bottom has to be in line with where the program is headed and how to get there.

While the alignment has been on track throughout much of the history of the Highlands program, that was not the case with some of the players this past season said senior linebacker Trey Bowden. Next year's senior class hopes to change that.

"We're going to try to keep a positive attitude at practice every day and try to get everyone to listen to the coaches because they know what's best for us," said Nick Veneman, Highlands wide receiver. "We're going to create the best bond with everyone and get everyone to want to come to practice every day so we'll be a better team than last year. We're trying to build relationships with the underclassmen to make them feel involved. We always try to get people to come to the off-season workouts right away."

Weinrich said it boils down to unselfishness. The 2014 team saw players switch positions after the 2013 season. For instance, Griffin Urlage moved from defensive back to running back and Matt Gall moved from the defensive line to the offensive line. Highlands has tried to keep players going one direction for the most part in recent years taking advantage of its depth.

"You try to develop that culture of leadership. Everybody is in it for something bigger than themselves and that's the team and the guy next to them," Weinrich said. "That's the goal of every team. Each team is different. Each team has its own personality. Leaders are different so you have to try to figure out what it is for each group to get to that point. It's never the same year after year. Something that may have worked perfectly one year, you may have to do the opposite the next year. That's what you have to figure out in a hurry."

The Highlands defense hopes to improve tremendously in the offseason to help put the program back where it has been historically. Opponents outscored Highlands, 463-367 for an average of 42-33 last year. Teams rushed for 3.343 yards and passed for 1,938 for averages of about 304 passing and 176 passing respectively against the undersized 3-4 Highlands defense.

That starts up front with returning defensive linemen such as Michael Dunn, Keaton Huddleston, Nick Biltz and Nate Davis. Huddleston said a coach told him a typical defensive lineman stands at 6-feet-2 inches and 260 pounds to match up with most offensive linemen the Bluebirds face. Highlands will focus on things like footwork in the offseason to improve there as well. When the defensive line controls the line of scrimmage, it often frees up the linebackers and defensive backs to make plays.

"Once actual (after-school) training starts up in January, we'll be doing a lot more footwork than we have before," Huddleston said. "Everyone needs to start trusting each other. Everyone needs to start having fun and work together better."

Huddleston and his younger brother Brycen Huddleston, a freshman, come from one of many families that have a line of state championships. Their older brother Billy Huddleston won four state championships in high school and their Uncle Matthew Huddleston won one when Tom Duffy was head coach. Brycen Huddleston saw some action against Doss at linebacker.

"They had a couple freshmen come up," Brycen Huddleston said. "We were hoping we could ride it through with them and watch them win one."

Weinrich said the coaching staff will remain intact. The staff has some talent coming up from the 6-3 junior varsity and 7-3 freshman squads. Some of the players are currently playing basketball or preparing for spring sports like baseball or track and field.

"We're looking forward to getting them all in the weight room and getting them running around here soon," Weinrich said. "Nothing has officially started, but guys are finding their way in and we're trying to give them some available times. We're having good turnouts from the young guys. A lot of guys are doing things on their own. We're excited they're all doing something. We're looking forward to getting together in January and as the offseason rolls on, getting better."

Weinrich said the schedule will have eight of the same opponents as last year. Lexington Catholic will replace Louisville St. Xavier and Highlands is searching for a replacement after Grant County dropped out of district play for the next two years.

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