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Friday, July 28, 2017

2017 Highlands Defensive Preview

Bluebirds Hope Off-Season Helps Correct Defensive Weaknesses

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior Joe Steiden (27) pursues a ball carrier in a game against Boone County last year. Steiden is one of the leaders hoping to turn around the fortunes of a defense that struggled last year.
Editor's Note: This the second of a two-part series.

After the season-opening win over Cooper last year, Shelby Jones, the Defensive Coordinator of the Highlands Bluebirds football team came into the locker room concerned.

"About all I can say is we're lucky to win the game," Jones said. "We have to get better. We're not as far along as I thought we'd be."

Highlands recovered three fumbles in that game on its way to a 52-42 victory. But the Jaguars racked up 479 yards on 71 yards for an average of 6.7 yards per play.

Those fears came into fruition over the next couple months as the Bluebirds lost seven straight for the second-longest losing streak in school history on their way to a 3-8 season for their first losing since going 4-5-1 in 1955. Only the 1939 squad lost more in a row dropping eight straight.

The Highlands 3-4 defense lacked the size of past teams and opponents overpowered the Bluebirds for 3,343 yards rushing and 1,938 passing for averages of about 304 yards rushing and just more than 176 passing. The only exception was the 50-0 shut-out at Grant County in which the Bluebirds held the Braves to just 68 yards on 49 plays for an average of 1.4 yards per play.

Highlands did put several offensive linemen on the defensive line for the last three games of the season. But unlike the past, the Bluebirds did not have that one player that commanded double-teams and freed up teammates to make plays like Tyler Robinson did in 2015.

Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich spent the previous three years as Offensive Coordinator after serving as Defensive Coordinator between 2002 and 2013 when Dale Mueller was head coach of the Bluebirds. Weinrich decided to return to the defensive side of the ball after talks with the assistants in the off-season.

Highlands switched from the 3-4 to the 3-5 defensive scheme in the off-season. The Bluebirds added an extra linebacker in their come-back 49-42 win over Owensboro in the 2014 Class 4A state championship game. That helped the Bluebirds keep the Red Devil Veer-Option offense off the scoreboard in the second half.

"It had to do with personnel. It also had to do with comfort levels," Weinrich said of the defensive scheme switch. "It's what we ran for a long time. We feel like we really know the ins and outs of it. It was also driven by some of the teams we had to play. We felt like there for a couple seasons they were adjusting to the 3-4 concepts a lot in the important games so we made the decision then that was where it needed to go. If there was a perfect defense, everyone would run it."

The returning Highlands defensive linemen heavily focused on becoming bigger and stronger hoping to correct the problems of last year. Highlands graduated Max AbantoConnor MyersJacob JohnsonZach Sisson and Bruce Seidel from last year's defensive line.

Seniors Nick Biltz and Nate Davis along with junior Brady Walz hope to lead the charge in the trenches for the Bluebirds there. The Bluebirds moved several players to the defensive line in seniors Korbyn Poole, Ethan Sketch and juniors Ben Sisson and Andrew Wyckoff. Sophomores Zach Lewin, Max Dierig, Sylvan Frazier, Preston McAlpin, Brennan White, Conner Zell and Tyler Phillipps along with Sam Ellsworth could also make an impact there. Weinrich said senior Michael Dunn and junior Trent Johnson could see action on the defensive line in certain situations like they did at the end of last year.

"I feel like we've made bigger jumps than any group before them," Weinrich said. "It's no knock on any group before them or whatever. This group really bought into everything we were telling them. We just needed to put our guys in the best position to do the things like stop the run. It's been a great spring and summer adjusting because there is a lot of adjusting for the guys in how they play their position. It's been a good change."

The lack of backfield penetration meant the linebackers had to crowd the line of scrimmage attempting to limit the big plays. The Bluebirds recovered 17 fumbles last year. Ten came from the linebacker spot as Dalton Cornett hopped on eight fumbles and Trey Bowden recovered two. Those two graduated at that spot along with Luke Ross, Luke Meyer, Carter Burke, Noah Kremer-Stegman and Trent Webster.

"I put a lot of effort into getting stronger and getting faster and working on my form," Davis said. "I feel like everyone on the defense is focused on that because we all know we were not great last year. We kept on losing because we couldn't stop the run. It's a matter of reading your keys and getting off the ball. That's going to be your main advantage because the offensive line is almost always going to be bigger than you. But if you can be quick off the ball and surprise them, that's how you get off (blocks) and are able to make a sack or stop the running back."

Junior Nick Bowman and senior Logan Sparks bring back some experience at linebacker. Others hoping to contribute there are juniors Alex Starkey, Jackson Hagedorn and Addison Reynolds. Seniors Logan Seiple and Crosley New moved from defensive back to linebacker roles in the off-season.

"We're really trying to emphasize getting downhill and not going parallel with the sideline," Sparks said. "If we get three or four linebackers, especially the inside guys heading downhill fast, we'll make a lot of stops. We played pretty well in spring ball. It's a lot of read and react. There's not a lot of thinking in it. Just go, go, go. If you get going full speed, good things will happen."

The Highlands secondary had its fair share of issues last year. Teams found one-on-one match-ups and burned the Bluebirds for big plays. Highlands only intercepted three passes last year. The Bluebirds graduated three starting defensive backs in Bradley Greene, Sam Taylor and Kyle Rust along with Joe Buchanan, Michael Siska and Ben Grothaus.

Senior Joe Steiden is the lone returning starter in the defensive secondary. Senior Harrison Traylor along with juniors Kyle Turner, Casey Greene, Bailey Armstrong, Brandon Mason and Andra Hall hope to help improve the secondary play along with sophomores Noah Lamothe and Jacob Brass. Hall is back out after not playing last year. Steiden said the Bluebirds have converted to a zone, Cover-3 defense in the 3-5 scheme.

"We have one less defensive back and one more linebacker to  help with underneath routes. The corners usually stay as deep as they can with the deepest person on the field and try not to let us get deep for a big play," Steiden said. "We're going to try to get more interceptions this year because turnovers are a really big turning point in the game. They can change the momentum anytime in the game and make a big difference."

Steiden nearly had an interception against Cooper last year, but the ball hit the turf as he came down. He said the defensive backs could get more interceptions by jumping in front of passes. But he also said the Highlands defensive backs don't want the ball to either get tipped or go through their hands into the arms of opponents for big plays so it depends on the situation.

Special Teams:

Bowman handled the kicking duties last year and returns to that role. Cam'Ron Johnston punted last year. Junior Grady Cramer looks to take over those duties with Johnston's graduation.

Highlands takes on Cincinnati St. Xavier on Aug. 11 before opening the season against Cooper on Aug. 18 in Union. The Bluebirds have just four home games this year.

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