|Bluebirds Offense Reloads for 2017|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Sam Sparks (center) sets up for a block in a scrimmage at Cincinnati St. Xavier last year. He is one of several experienced offensive linemen returning this year.|
The Highlands Bluebirds football team came back home up Interstate 71 from Louisville on Nov. 4 last season facing cold, hard reality.
The season that the returning players hope to make people forget about quickly came to an end that night. The Bluebirds ventured to the Commonwealth of Kentucky's largest city and lost 52-32 to the Doss Dragons in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.
For the first time since 1991, Highlands did not win a playoff game and the loss put the cap on its first losing season in 60 years at 3-8 overall and just the ninth losing season in school history in 102 seasons. The last time that happened came in 1955 when the Bluebirds finished 4-5-1.
A number of things contributed to the rough season. But players like Trey Bowden, a senior linebacker last year, said the main reason for the rough season was not every player bought into the things that have made the Bluebirds successful to the tune of 23 state championships good for second in Kentucky and an overall record of 879-243-26 good for second in the country for most wins in program history behind the 913-223-34 mark of Valdosta High from southern Georgia.
Highlands senior Nick Veneman among the other returning players said they hoped to get to know their teammates better in order to build trust and earn respect as leaders this year. Veneman returns as a dynamic force for the Bluebirds to build around offensively. Veneman caught 46 passes for 1,026 yards and 12 touchdowns last year hurting teams all years, especially on the deep routes.
Highlands is as deep as it has been in recent years. The Bluebirds have 84 players in the top three grades on the roster. That has generally let players go one direction and wear opponents down. That is still the case even though Highlands has begun playing players on both sides in certain situations the last couple years.
Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich moved back to the Defensive Coordinator role after spending the previous three as Offensive Coordinator and Zach Deaton took over as Offensive Coordinator. Weinrich served as Defensive Coordinator under former Head Coach Dale Mueller from 2002 to 2013.
Weinrich challenged the guys to not only get better themselves, but make sure their teammates are doing the same thing. He said the team has made tremendous strides throughout the 7-on-7 Tournament on Saturday at Oldham County defeating Oldham County, Boyle County and Simon Kenton.
"Top to bottom, I just feel there's so much improvement from this year to last year, from spring to now," Weinrich said. "It's something we truly believe in and you hear them saying it. 'We got to get better. Got to get better.' You hear every coach, every business say it. You either get better or you get worse."
Veneman is one of several wide receivers returning with varsity experience. The others are seniors Griffin Huber (24 catches, 225 yards, one touchdown), Jared Wogan (19 catches, 243 yards, four touchdowns), Grant Summers (12 catches, 180 yards, one touchdown) and junior Nate Roberts (two catches for 25 yards).
"There's a lot of pride in it because you want the opportunities to score, but you also want your teammates to have the same opportunities so you have to block for them every play and make sure they get the opportunities to score," Summers said of the team's depth. "It's pretty hard on them because every time we run a fake and run 40 or 50 yards, the defense has to run that too. Then we have a new guy in who's fresh and ready to go on the next play and they're winded running down the field and back to the line of scrimmage."
Highlands graduated five wide receivers from last year. They are Trent Buchert (24 catches, 242 yards, three touchdowns), Evan Fickenscher, twins Chuckie and Dougie Buckler and Brent Angel. Also for Highlands, senior Braden Posey (38 catches, 391 yards, four touchdowns) and his younger brother Aubrey Posey, a junior, transferred to Newport Central Catholic.
A number of other wide receivers could emerge to take the pressure off Veneman. They are senior Chas Sand, juniors Eddie Etter, Tyler Bracken, Austin King, Liam Ehram, Carter Crawford, Jack Schultz and Logan Guy along with sophomores Ryan Garvey, Adam Weyer, Conner Noon, Joey Deshler, Tyler Brune and Ethan Houze. Sophomore Brycen Huddleston could see action at both wide receiver and linebacker and sophomore Sam Ellsworth could play at tight end or the defensive line.
"I think we got a lot of options," Deaton said. "We have a lot of gifted older guys that know what they're doing and are effective at whatever we're asking them to do whether it be blocking or catching or anything. Getting the ball in those guys' hands as quickly as possible is something we're really excited about."
The key for Highlands offensively out of its multi-formation spread attack has been balance. The Bluebirds put together another nice year on that front last year scoring 367 points for an average of just more than 33 points per game. Highlands rushed for 1,717 yards and passed for 2,692 yards for averages of just more than 156 yards rushing and just under 245 yards passing last year.
The defensive woes unfortunately overshadowed those stats in the tough season. Highlands did not convert key third and fourth downs to sustain drives and make up for the defensive woes last year.
"We just have to make plays when we need to make plays all the time," Deaton said. "We have to keep the pedal down and stay focused on doing the right thing every single time and having a short memory when something doesn't go our way. When you play football, you learn about competing at every single thing you do. Everything is a job interview. You learn that even though you work hard and do things right, something may not go your way. How do you respond to it? Are you going to shy away from it or line back up again and try to fix it?"
That balance starts with the offensive line that graduated Mitch Schry, Kyle Finfrock, Michael Davidson and Trey King. Seniors Sam Sparks, Josh Homer, Michael Dunn and Justin Merkle return along with junior Trent Johnson with varsity experience. Highlands also moved senior Keaton Huddleston from the defensive line to the offensive line. Dunn, Schry and Johnson also saw time on the defensive line last year and that could happen on the defensive side in certain situations again this year for Dunn and Johnson. Juniors Will Gastright and Will Salmon could join the rotation there along with sophomores Jackson Curry, Jackson Bibb, Brock Huber and Dylan Turner.
"We have to have people holding each other accountable," Merkle said. "If you're not in (the game), you're supposed to be watching your position making sure (your teammates) are doing everything correct. You always want to continue the play until the whistle. We'll keep doing that every play until we get (the skill players) in the end zone."
The biggest question mark is how fast the new starting quarterback will adjust to the varsity level. Last year's starting quarterback in Brady Gosney completed 200-of-339 passes for 2,681 yards, 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last year. Gosney also made plays with his legs rushing for 212 yards on 52 attempts and seven touchdowns last year. Gosney took his talents to Hanover College. Back-up quarterback Cam'Ron Johnston also graduated.
The two players battling for the starting quarterback job are senior Carl Schoellman and junior Grady Cramer with sophomore quarterback Collin Hollingsworth moving up the junior varsity level. Schoellman did not complete his lone pass on the varsity level. Schoellman and Cramer helped the Highlands Junior Varsity squad go 6-3 last year. Deaton said the staff is close to naming a varsity starter.
"We got a couple guys that are good at a couple different things," Deaton said. "We're looking at boxes that they're completing being able to do that we want them to be able to do. As we put more pads on and as we see more things against other defenses, it's helping us check those things off."
Two seniors handled most of the carries for the Bluebirds last year. Grant Murray led the team rushing last year going for 989 yards on 163 carries and nine touchdowns for an average of just more than six yards per carry. Murray also caught 16 passes for 193 yards and three touchdowns. The other senior in Jared Pulsfort rushed for 432 yards and nine touchdowns on 84 carries for an average of just more than five yards per carry and caught seven passes for 84 yards before going out for the season with an injury against Covington Catholic.
Three seniors in Larry Wilson, Logan Aubrey along with junior Cooper Schwalbach and sophomores Sawyer Depp and Wes Bowling hope to fill in those shoes and give Highlands the offensive balance that has made it tough over the years. Wilson, Aubrey and Schwalbach had some carries last year. Schwalbach scored a touchdown on one of his four carries and saw time at the end of the year at linebacker defensively. Senior Crosley New and sophomore Mason Schwalbach could also see some carries along with his linebacker duties.
"You want to have awarness," Aubrey said of running smart. "You want to know what you're doing on the field. Whenever you're carrying the ball, you want to fall forward to get some extra yards. It's about being smart about everything."
Highlands plays host to Cincinnati St. Xavier on Aug. 11 for a scrimmage before opening the season at Cooper on Aug. 18. The schedule is the same as the last two years with only two new opponents in Lexington Catholic and Greenwood.