|Bluebirds Face Challenging Veer Offense|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Jared Wogan (10) makes a move against Covington Catholic while Josh Homer (71) and Grant Summers (8) look to block.|
The hope is for the Highlands Bluebirds football players to try to do their best on each and ever play regardless of how good or bad the last one went. That'll be especially the case when the Bluebirds head south to Bowling Green on Friday for an 8:30 p.m. contest against the Greenwood Gators from Class 5A, District 2 in a battle of 3-5 squads.
Highlands is coming off a 52-0 loss to the arch-rival Covington Catholic Colonels to conclude Class 5A, District 5 action at 1-1. The Bluebirds should play host to a first-round playoff game assuming undefeated CovCath takes care of business at Dixie Heights on Friday.
Losses like that can devastate a team. That marked the first time since 2005 that Highlands had been shut out and marked the largest loss to the Colonels in school history.
But like last year, the staff hopes the Bluebirds put the loss behind them and move forward quickly. Highlands ended the regular season on a two-game winning streak last year after losing seven in a row. The big difference between this year and last year is two wins would put the Bluebirds at an even 5-5 entering the postseason as opposed to 3-7.
"Our leaders are stepping up and telling guys we have to bounce back and keep getting better every week," said Grady Cramer, Highlands junior wide receiver/quarterback. "Our guys are definitely going to be ready. We're going to be pumped."
Long road trips have not hurt the Bluebirds in the past. The last time it happened during the regular season came in 2014 when Highlands beat Warren Central, 43-0 to conclude the regular season. This will mark the first meeting in school history against Greenwood.
"We're going to stop about halfway down, get a bit to eat at the rest stop and walk around a bit," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "Really, the drive is an opportunity to relax and just get away from everything. You don't really do a talk, talk session. But we can go around and talk to guys about different things. There's nowhere to go. We're actually really excited about getting out of town and hanging out together."
Both teams have suffered three losses each of 22 or more points and two defeats by six points or less. Greenwood had high hopes coming into the season after consecutive 9-3 campaigns that ended with losses to Owensboro in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs. But fifth-year Head Coach Chris Seabolt said the Gators have had their issues this year including season-ending injuries to senior starters. Highlands has also had a number of players out with injuries at different times this year.
"Our players have also had to deal with a couple of their peers being dismissed for poor choices," Seabolt said. "Through all of that, our players have continued to show up for practice with a great attitude and continue to work hard. I'm very appreciative of the young men that are doing those things."
Greenwood is coming off a 41-6 victory over Grayson County in district action. The Gators have been outscored 242-224 on the season for an average of just more than 30 to an even 28. On the other side, teams have outscored Highlands, 270-211 for an average of just under 34 to just more than 26 points per game.
But what stands out is the combined record of the three teams each both teams have beaten. Highlands has wins over Cooper, Dixie Heights and Campbell County. Those three have a combined record of 9-15. On the other side, Greenwood's victories have come against two winless teams in Warren Central and Barren County in addition to 1-7 Grayson County for a combined record of 1-23.
The Highlands 3-5 defense has to prepare for a rare offense in Greenwood's Veer attack. The Bluebirds last saw that in the 2014 Class 4A state championship game known as "Triple-21 Comeback." The Owensboro Red Devils used it to build a 21-point lead three times in the first half to go up 42-21 at halftime. Highlands made a huge adjustment at halftime adding another linebacker near the line of scrimmage similar to the current 3-5 look and shut down that offense in the second half to mount a comeback to win 49-42.
"The hardest thing about this offense is preparing for it because it's something that if you don't do it, it's hard to replicate it - the timing of it, the little nuances of it," Weinrich said. "It looks like a well-oiled machine how they do it. We emphasized (Monday) to do what you're supposed to do and nothing more. We got a little nosy in practice (Monday) and had to try to correct those as soon as we possibly could. It's an option. With every other offense, you pretty much know what's coming and you just go."
The Bluebirds consistently blitzed the Owensboro Veer at different angles and did not allow any big plays. But things may not be that simple against Greenwood fourth-year starting quarterback Jackson Adams. Adams is the school's all-time leading rusher and scorer with a four-year total of 549 carries for 4,561 yards and 64 touchdowns for an average of about 8.3 per carry and 390 total points.
Greenwood does not throw the ball much. But Adams has also completed 84-of-227 passes for 1,388 yards, 15 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in his career. His career completion percentage is 37 percent and 11 of those interceptions came during his freshman season in 2014.
"He's a very intelligent young man that does a great job of making choices during the game," Seabolt said. "Many times, he gets us in the correct play and makes checks that help our offense to be successful."
Seabolt said his numbers are down this year because he's had to play more on defense as a defensive back. Adams has 23 tackles on defense. Adams has 893 yards rushing on 110 carries and nine touchdowns this season for an average of just more than eight yards per carry compared to 1,329 yards rushing on 160 carries and 24 touchdowns last year for an average of about 8.3 per game. Adams is one of several players going both directions for the Gators.
Adams runs a lot of plays out of the I-formation and split backfield sets with senior fullback Xezayier Snorton and junior running back Triston Wilson. Wilson has 770 yards rushing on 102 carries and five touchdowns for an average of 7.5 yards per carry. Wilson is often the pitch man when Greenwood runs the option. Snorton takes the ball up the middle on dives to keep defenses honest. Snorton has 270 yards rushing on 43 carries and four touchdowns for an average of about 6.3 yards per carry. The Gator offensive line is led by seniors Lawson Fletcher and Mason Kreilein along with juniors Abraham Sosa and Ben Scott.
A tough thing defensively for some players in staying disciplined is overcoming an unselfish mentality. For instance, a defensive end may see the opponent have success running around the opposite side. On the next play, that defensive end might run to that end of the field to help. That's when the Veer runs to that area and goes for a huge gain.
"You kind of have to dumb yourself down a little bit," said Nate Davis, Highlands defensive lineman. "You only focus on what you have to do that play. You don't think about anything else. You don't even consider the possibility of that. It's something you definitely have to focus. Especially as a sophomore, I wanted to look in the backfield, see where things were going and try to do more than what my job was. It's a repetition thing."
The Gators average 319 yards rushing and 41 passing per game. The Gators have seen 16 different players carry the ball. Adams has completed 22-of-54 passes for 326 yards to six different receivers. Senior running back Dakota Ford leads the way with six catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns.
Highlands is allowing averages of just more than 283 rushing and 141 passing. The Bluebirds did not record any turnovers defensively against CovCath. They did shut out a less-experienced Dixie Heights ground-and-pound offense two weeks ago. Sophomore linebacker Brycen Huddleston made his return from injury a big one in that game with a nine-yard sack, numerous tackles and a fumble recovery.
Defensively, Highlands penetrated the Dixie Heights backfield well. Senior defensive lineman Nick Biltz had a fumble recovery and the linebackers helped limit Red Colonel plays to no more than 15 yards.
The Bluebirds recovered three fumbles and intercepted one pass against Dixie Heights. They've recorded 11 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries this year and could use some against Greenwood. Highlands senior defensive back Harrison Traylor has three interceptions and a fumble recovery and junior defensive back Bailey Armstrong has two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Senior defensive back Joe Steiden leads Highlands with four interceptions and junior linebacker Alex Starkey has two fumble recoveries. Steiden said he will not play in the final two regular season games, but should be ready for the playoffs.
The Highlands Spread offense could have an advantage with its balance. The Bluebirds are averaging about 106 yards per game rushing and 209 passing behind the offensive line led by seniors Keaton Huddleston, Michael Dunn, Justin Merkle, Josh Homer and junior Trent Johnson.
Highlands Offensive Coordinator Zach Deaton listed several areas of emphasis this week. One is making sure Highlands senior running back Larry Wilson and junior Cooper Schwalbach get comfortable with each other in the backfield. The two have played the last two games together after only doing so for the first couple minutes of the Cooper game. Another is making sure all 11 players on the field take care of their assignments, especially against blitzes.
Schwalbach leads Highlands with 404 yards rushing on 98 carries and nine touchdowns for an average of just more than four yards per carry. Wilson has rushed for 290 yards on 48 carries for an average of just more than six per carry.
Highlands hopes to eliminate the interceptions and negative plays against Greenwood. The Bluebirds had three interceptions against Covington Catholic.
"Anytime the ball is in the air, it has to be our football," Deaton said. "So being aggressive and getting to the football is something we did earlier in the year that we need to get back to now."
Bluebird quarterback Carl Schoellman has completed 131-of-211 passes for 1,573 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Cramer has completed 7-of-11 passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns and caught 12 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown.
Thirteen different Bluebirds have receptions. Senior Nick Veneman still leads the way with 34 catches for 530 yards and eight touchdowns and senior Jared Wogan has 31 receptions for 403 yards and three touchdowns. Veneman said he should be ready to go Friday after not playing in the second half against CovCath.
Defensively, Greenwood allows averages of 119 yards rushing and about 134 passing. The Gators run a mixture of 3-4 and four-man front defenses. Teams ran the ball with success against the Gators early in the season. In the 42-11 loss to South Warren, the Spartans ran for a balanced 156 yards rushing and passed for 153.
"They do a good job mixing their fronts and their coverages," Deaton said. "I think they do a pretty good job of getting up the field with their defensive line."
In the 49-19 loss against Bowling Green, Purples junior quarterback Beau Buchanan completed 12-of-14 passes for 320 yards and four touchdowns to six different receivers including a 99-yard pass to senior tight end Trey Thomas after the Purple defense stopped Greenwood at the 1-yard line.
That long touchdown came when the Gators had at least two sophomore defensive backs on the field. Veneman burned Dixie Heights sophomore defensive back Dylan Sears for three touchdowns in the 47-0 Bluebird win.
Greenwood junior Bradley Herman and junior linebacker Zach Langevin lead the way defensively with 31 tackles each. Senior defensive back Jake Sanson has picked off three passes to lead the Gators.
"Greenwood is not blessed with an abundance of athletic ability," Seabolt said. "As a staff, we've continued to coach our young men daily and tried to make corrections where necessary."
Highlands is 5-1 all-time against teams from Warren County. The Bluebirds have won three of four meetings against Bowling Green and won both meetings against Warren Central in 2013 and 2014. Aside from Greenwood, Highlands has never played Warren East or South Warren.
Directions to Greenwood High School:
Note: Mapquest lists Greenwood High as about three hours, 19 minutes from Highlands High.
- From Fort Thomas, go south on I-471 and go west on I-275.
- Travel to Interstates 71/75 and go south.
- Take Exit 173 on I-71 going south toward Louisville.
- Once in downtown Louisville, go south on I-65 and stay on it for just more than 113 miles.
- Take Exit 22 off I-65 and go left on Scottsville Road.
- Greenwood High School will be on the right.