The Bluebirds know they have a lot of work to do this off-season to make that happen. A huge area of emphasis will be on their run defense. The Bluebirds allowed 3,336 yards on the ground last year for an average of 278 per game in their 6-6 campaign that saw Highlands lose three games late in the game including a heartbreaking 35-34 loss at South Oldham in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs. In particular, Ryle rushed for 449 yards and Scott County rushed for 410 yards. South Oldham ran for 361 yards and Greenwood garnered 324 yards on the ground.
But it was still not close to the 2015 8-6 region championship team's 202 average. The 2015 squad started off the season 1-5 before rebounding to win seven in a row.
The Bluebirds would not mind going steps beyond that. The Class 4A 13-2 state championship squad allowed an average of 154 yards rushing per contest and the last undefeated Highlands squad at 15-0 in 2011 allowed just more than 121 yards rushing per contest. Opponents rushed for just 1,817 yards in 2011. That marked the last time the Highlands defense held opponents below 2,000 yards rushing for the season. Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich said averaging 150 yards per game defensively would be good, but going below that would be great.
That starts with individuals improving their size, speed, strength and technique in the off-season. The first workout began Monday at 9 a.m. with a temperature of one degree outside. But Weinrich said more than 60 players showed up.
"We really got after it. They didn't back down from anything we gave to them," Weinrich said. "A bunch of guys stayed after (the workout) on their own throwing, catching and just working on skills."
Highlands implemented a 3-5-3 defense last year after running the 3-4 for years. The defense is commonly meant to take advantage of a team's speed.
"That's definitely the case. The schematics of it are to try confuse blocking schemes," Weinrich said. "On the defensive side, there are keys that have to get experience in reading. Reacting to them is the key. Anytime you get a bunch of guys back that have done it so much, you could just see them growing as the year went on. Each guy had their light bulbs on them. You see times where they get it. I see why I have to do this and this in this situation. Fortunately where we're sitting right now, there are a lot of guys in that room that have a lot of experience of seeing those things only by being in games."
One of the returning linebackers is junior Nick Bowman. Other returning linebackers with varsity experience include juniors Alex Starkey, Jackson Hagedorn and sophomores Brycen Huddleston and Jack Delagrange. Starkey recovered two fumbles and intercepted one pass. He returned a fumble for a touchdown against Boone County and returned his lone interception for a touchdown against Oldham County in the first round of the playoffs.
"It's nice that most of us have at least a year of experience under our belt so guys can start playing with confidence, which means they start playing faster," Bowman said. "They start flying around a lot more and just playing good defense."
Junior Gavin Downard started the season at linebacker, but moved to the defensive line later in the season. He said he noticed a big difference on defense when Huddleston returned for the Dixie Heights game. On a pass play, Huddleston made sure Colonel quarterback Jeremy Adams kept the ball on a play-action pass. Huddleston then quickly sprinted upfield and sacked Adams for a nine-yard loss in a matter of seconds.
"It helps everyone," Downard said. "You can feel the energy off plays like that, especially with Brycen. He brings the most energy I've ever seen anyone bring to a football field. It's just fun playing with him."
A number of web sites such as www.chiefpigskin.com list some weaknesses of the 3-5-3 defense. One is tight ends have a free release off the ball to block linebackers or defensive backs or go out for passes.
"There's a lot of thought about there about everything. In any defense football-wise, you're going to be able to find a hole," Weinrich said. "I talk more to coaches than read websites because I don't always know where that comes from. A lot of analysts on TV talk. They make good sense a lot of times. What you hear a lot of coaches say is if there was a perfect offense, defense or a faster way to kick off, that's what everybody would do. You just have to deal with what you know. The key is teaching the players the weaknesses. If you run a certain coverage, the first thing you better know is what the weaknesses are of that coverage. You're going to have to coach that up to make sure the guys understand those. There are techniques you can try to teach to offset that. We were predominantly a three-deep coverage team last year. If you click on any web site or ask any novice football fan, the obvious answer for three deep is four vertical. You have to coach how to play four vertical with three deep. The strengths of it are easy to coach."
Highlands faced a number of spread teams such as Ryle and Covington so the secondary saw a lot of things thrown their way. Teams averaged 123.5 per game through the air against Highlands this year. But senior defensive back Joe Steiden picked off a team-high six passes including a school-record four in the season-opening win at Cooper and senior defensive back Harrison Traylor had three. The third starting defensive back in junior Bailey Armstrong had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries including a pick-six against Campbell County. Junior defensive back Casey Greene also had a pick-six against Greenwood and junior defensive lineman Ben Sisson had one against Simon Kenton. The Bluebirds picked off 15 passes last year after intercepting just three in 2016.
Weinrich said a big key to defensive success comes from up front. Sisson returns after starting there along with sophomore Zach Lewin. Senior Nate Davis and Nick Biltz graduate, but junior Will Salmon also saw action there. One player that could make a huge difference on the defensive line with his size, speed and technique is sophomore Max Dierig, who is listed at 6-foot-3-inches, 220 pounds. Weinrich said Dierig was about to focus on varsity the following week, but ended up getting injured in a junior varsity game.
"You try to put certain guys in certain spots depending on the week," Weinrich said. "You got to be able to have guys that can draw double teams up front in any defense. If you have to double-team up front, that's one less guy that can get to the guys that are standing up. They can run and go where they need to go. Nate Davis was good at drawing double teams and holding his point in terms of not getting moved. If you get double teamed and get moved, that doesn't help either."
Weinrich said Lewin received some double teams last year because he developed into a play-maker late in the season. Sophomores Jacob Brass and Hunter Ahlfeld also received some experience in the secondary late in the year.
Highlands generally does workouts three days per week until Spring Practice. The Bluebirds will have six home games this fall.