|Bluebirds See New Ideas in Off-Season|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands linebacker Cooper Schwalbach (91) reacts after a play against Boone County last year.|
The Highlands Bluebirds football coaching staff has had a lot of that over the past few years. But there will be some new roles on the staff this upcoming season. Head Coach Brian Weinrich also served as Offensive Coordinator the past three years similar to what former Head Coach Dale Mueller did for years before retiring after the 2013 campaign.
Weinrich had been the Defensive Coordinator from 2002 to 2013 on Mueller's staff. Weinrich will return to that role in addition to his head coaching duties this year trying to help drastically improve a defense that struggled to stop teams in all but one game last year. That led to the program's first losing season in 61 years at 3-8 overall. Highlands assistant coach Shelby Jones will continue to coach the linebackers after serving as Defensive Coordinator the past three years.
Opponents outscored Highlands, 463-367 for an average of about 42-33 last year. Teams rushed for 3,343 yards and passed for 1,938 for averages of about 304 and 176 per game against the Bluebirds last year.
"It's anywhere whether it's at home or your job. Changing what you're doing is not that you're getting stale on purpose," Weinrich said. "You start to focus on things and it's nice to get a fresh set of ideas in. When Coach Mueller left, just the way things fell, I felt like it was best for the team for me to go to the offense. To be honest, I wasn't something I was super, super, super excited about. I enjoyed it. I had a blast. It's fun. I played offense my whole life. As soon as it went through my head and I had some conversations with coaches that that's what we were going to do, I felt my energy pick up. Watching film at home, I felt more comfortable. I feel I watch offenses better than I watch defenses when I'm watching film."
The defense welcomes back a number of players with varsity experience. That includes Crosley New and Joe Steiden in the secondary.
"You can just tell there's a different energy, a higher intensity," New said. "(Highlands Assistant) Coach (Nick) Behymer is really taking it upon himself to get people going as hard as we can. We had a lot of people who played well on JV last year that could have been varsity players. They were just not quite there last year. Having Coach Weinrich come back (on defense) gives us confidence knowing we have a veteran who's proven he can lead a team to a championship so I'm just excited to get to play for him for sure."
Highlands assistant coach Zach Deaton will take over as Offensive Coordinator. Deaton has head coaching experience having led the nearby Dayton Greendevils for four seasons from 2007 to 2010. The 2000 Highlands graduate led the Greendevils to two playoff appearances.
Deaton said not much will change philosophically with the Highlands offense. The Bluebirds have torched teams with a variety of looks out of the spread offense for years.
"I think that's the goal every year is figuring out what pieces you have and how to put those pieces in the right places so that you can maximize what you got," Deaton said. "We always tell the guys they have to be ready. We'll do different things in practice where we'll break our routine doing something different. We don't know who it's going to be yet. Some of those guys have to be ready to do two things or three things."
Last year, Highlands rushed for 1,717 and passed for 2,692 yards for averages of just more than 156 and about 245 yards per game. The Bluebirds welcome back Michael Dunn, Sam Sparks, Justin Merkle and Josh Homer on the offensive line.
Deaton worked with the wide receivers last year. The Bluebirds welcome back a wealth of experience there led by Nick Veneman. Veneman had 46 catches for 1,026 yards and 12 touchdowns. Other returning wide receivers include Griffin Huber, Jared Wogan, Braden Posey and Grant Summers.
"Before, you just had to worry about one position," Deaton said. "While that's four to five guys at a time. now, not only do you have to switch your mindset to your one position but making sure that all the different positions are working the right way. That's a bit more tricky. The great thing we've always had here is fantastic position coaches. There's a great deal of confidence to ask (Highlands offensive line) Coach (Wayne) Hall or Coach (Scott) Turner what's happening because you know they can fix it."
Highlands will again have a new starting quarterback entering the season. But Wogan said the wide receivers are trying to get in rhythm with them. The Bluebirds have been especially tough offensively when they force teams to defend the entire field. Veneman forced defenses to do that last year.
"We were pretty dangerous last year," Wogan said. "I think we'll be even more dangerous if everyone gets the ball as we expect. We go up every Saturday and toss. Carl (Schoellman) has done a good job with knowing what everyone wants."
Highlands added an alum as an assistant with head coaching experience in the off-season in Kevin Siple. He assisted at Scott last year after serving several years as head coach at Grant County and Bracken County. Siple will coach the quarterbacks and running backs. Siple said he's been impressed with Weinrich's organization of the off-season schedule.
"I'm just excited to work with all these kids and coaches that football is important," Siple said. "These kids work so hard three days a week for two straight hours. I'd forgotten how Highlands does things. It's been really nice."
Siple takes a positive approach to coaching that reminds people of Mueller and other former Highlands coaches. That helped Grant County to a near-upset of Madison Southern in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs in 2015.
"Philosophically, I just think you just get a whole lot more from kids if you're positive," Siple said. "Growing up here, not just football, sports and coaches were such an influential part of my life. They were not only positive as your coaches, they were also your teachers. You have to get after kids. Once they know you're trying to make them better, they'll work hard. It's a good environment."
Highlands loses two good running backs in Grant Murray and Jared Pulsfort to graduation. The leading candidates to make an impact rushing the ball are Logan Aubrey, Larry Wilson, Ethan Sketch and Cooper Schwalbach.
"Coach Siple brings in a good attitude every day," Sketch said. "He's also making sure we become better contributing members of Fort Thomas. He really wants us to get out there and show what Highlands football is all about. We're just a bunch of great guys that are trying to get after it and trying to help out the community."
In terms of the quarterback spot, the Highlands staff generally does not name starters in the spring. Schoellman joined the off-season work-outs after basketball season ended, but sophomore Grady Cramer is playing baseball. The two quarterbacked the Highlands Junior Varsity team last year. A senior has entered the season as starting quarterback every season dating back to 2011.
"That's going to be an interesting deal," Siple said. "You'd like to always honor and reward the senior. But at the same time, you have to play who gives the team the best opportunity for success. It's a good problem to have."
Highlands starts spring practice in a few weeks. The Bluebirds open the season at Cooper on Aug. 18.