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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Highlands Football Trying Offense and Defense in Spring Ball

Bluebirds Take Different Approach in Putting Players in Right Positions

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands defensive lineman Michael Dunn (73) causes a fumble against Grant County last year. Dunn played on both lines at the end of last season .
The Highlands football coaches would be the first to tell you the toughest part of their jobs is putting players in the right positions to succeed.

"Even the players sometimes have a hard time accepting what their right position is," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "Some guys have the idea that they're this position. We're the ones viewing them. You view yourself different sometimes than what people see you. We're trying to convince them that they have to trust us in where we're putting them right now. There's been some successes and there's been some times where we've stepped back, scratched our heads and said maybe that wasn't the best spot for that person. But (at) six practices (into spring ball), we feel like we're getting a pretty good idea of where we feel guys should be."

Like many successful teams in Kentucky, the Bluebirds have had players going just one direction since 2010 taking advantage of their depth. They have 60 to 65 players partaking in spring football currently and hope to have 20 to 25 currently playing baseball or running track and field join them in the summer. Some past opposing head coaches such as John Hardin Head Coach Chad Lewis have said they wish they had the depth to two-platoon players.

Weinrich said the Bluebirds plan to continue doing that this fall. In the past, the Highlands coaching staff has said it helps players focus at improving on one position all the time as opposed to spending one part of practice at one position then spending another part at another one. Former Bluebird Head Coach Dale Mueller even said stats show players are healthier later in the life the less they get hit playing football.

"Health and safety is always the number one concern in what we're doing," Weinrich said. "As far as winning the games go, it's not always what is perceived as the 11 best on the field all the time because it is a four-quarter game. Teams are playing with much more tempo than they've played with in the past. We are as well. On offense and defense, there's going to be 140 to 160 plays not to mention the 30 to 40 special teams plays. It's a lot of plays. You need guys for the whole game and you need them healthy for the whole season. If you put a guy out there and he plays 115 plays, it might benefit you that game maybe help you a little bit here, a little bit there, but is that really going to benefit you with what the ultimate goal is and that's weeks 11, 12, 13, 14, 15? So you have to keep that in mind as well. That's an advantage to have (depth) at our level so we would be not doing ourselves, the team or the guys a service if we were limiting the amount of guys that play."

Highlands did see guys go both directions late last year in three games. The Bluebirds saw junior Michael Dunn and sophomore Trent Johnson play on both lines and they helped a struggling defense limit Grant County to 68 yards on 49 plays for an average of about 1.4 yards per play. The Braves ran the ball all but four times that game. Sophomore Cooper Schwalbach moved into the rotation at linebacker that game after playing running back on the junior varsity. Freshman Brycen Huddleston saw action at linebacker in the opening-round playoff loss at Louisville Doss after playing that and wide receiver on the freshman squad.

But one approach the Bluebirds are taking to figure things out this spring is alternating positions. Some players played one position on either offense or defense last week then played another position on the other side of the ball this week.

"After practice Friday, we'll sit down as coaches and try to figure out where does this guy need to be these last three days of practice to get reps at," Weinrich said. "Where's he going to help us most this year? We've already had a couple guys that saw themselves at one side of the ball. When we told them they're going to the other side of the ball, we told them they're at the wrong spot. We're also getting quality depth. We're getting some guys that are primarily on defense to learn some offensive positions in the spring then the summer so that if we get in a bind at some point, we have this senior who has experience, size and strength that we can plug in if needed."

Dunn helped cause two fumbles deep in Grant County territory that senior Dalton Cornett recovered for two of his team-high eight fumble recoveries. The Bluebirds scored on the next play offensively on their way to a 50-0 win that evening. Dunn said he hopes to be in better shape if needed to go both ways this year.

"Because in practice, I have experience at O-line, I know what the defense is going to do in a way. I know what my job is on how to block them," Dunn said. "So when I flip over to defense, I know what I need to do as a defender what I need to do to beat the (opposing offensive lineman) across from me because I have been the guy across from me. I think it's easier than learning new plays and coverages."

Weinrich said it's easier physically to play both wide receiver and defensive back during a game as opposed to both lines. He said that's because the other positions involve a lot more physical play.

"It's a different kind of conditioning," Weinrich said of spring ball. "I don't care how many miles you run. Going out blocking and getting blocking is a whole different animal. Part of that is games. You have to get in game shape by playing games. It's hard to replicate that by running a lot of sprints."

Junior Larry Wilson saw a lot of carries on the junior varsity at running back last year. He's played linebacker in the past and has seen some repetitions there this spring in case he's needed there his senior year.

"I'm just starting each day with a clear mindset and listening to what the coaches tell me just taking it step by step," Wilson said. "As coaches tell you over and over again, you work on individual stuff. Maybe I'll mess up on something. The coaches will tell you how to correct it. I'll go through it again until I get it right on both sides of the ball. I'm trying to help the team any way I can."

Weinrich said the new approach has brought more excitement to spring ball. The Bluebird coaches hope that leads to improvements all over the field, especially on the defensive side of the ball that struggled in last year's 3-8 season. Opponents outscored Highlands, 463-367 last year for an average of about 42-33. 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.

Highlands practices on Friday this week before going Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday next week. The Bluebirds then resume practices on July 15 before the first game at Cooper on Aug. 18.

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