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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Bluebirds Loaded at Quarterback for Years

Highlands Petitions to Stay in 5A During 2019-22 Cycle

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands sophomore quarterback Collin Hollingsworth (30) pulls the ball back after faking to sophomore running back Wes Bowling (91) in a junior varsity game at Cincinnati St. Xavier last fall.
The coaching staff can't say enough about how well the off-season has gone for the Blue and White football team.

"The kids and the coaches are doing a great job," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "They are so focused on having a great season this upcoming year. They are just approaching everything with a great attitude. We're really excited about this upcoming football season."

Deaton and the offensive coaches of the Highlands Bluebirds football team especially have a lot to be excited about with the return of three talented quarterbacks in senior-to-be Grady Cramer, junior-to-be Collin Hollingsworth and sophomore-to-be Cam Hergott. Over the next couple years, the coaching staff hopes to put the talent around them to make the Highlands spread offense as potent as it has been in the past. The Bluebirds rushed for 1,717 yards and passed for 2,357 last season for averages of just more than 143 and 196 per game.
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"We want the best guy to play regardless of what grade they're in," Deaton said. "That's something we get to look at in the spring and summer. We'll handle it the same way. It's always really nice to have multiple quarterbacks that you have to decide who's going to play. That's not a problem. That's a nice thing to have that not a lot of schools have so we're pretty excited about it. The more guys you have that can play a position well, the better, and we like it."

Cramer is the clear front-runner to start at quarterback based on the recent trend that has seen a senior enter the season as starting quarterback every year since Patrick Towles came into the 2010 season as the starting quarterback as a junior. Cramer brings the most varsity starts at quarterback entering his senior season since Towles with two. Cramer said he'd mainly focused on getting physically stronger this off-season.

"It's really exciting knowing how fast the games goes and being at quarterback how fast offenses and defenses move and knowing you can take it into the next season," Cramer said. "It's a lot different than JV. I grew up watching them (Towles and other former Highlands quarterbacks). I always wanted to be a Highlands quarterback. It is really exciting for me to do that now. (Former Highlands and current Brigham Young quarterback) Beau (Hoge) came back for a couple days during weights (training) and he's been teaching me footwork and all kind of stuff."

Cramer ran the offense mostly in the Muddle Huddle Two-Point conversion sets and in spot situations during the regular season. But when senior Carl Schoellman went down with an injury after the regular season ended, Cramer stepped in and started both playoff games for the Bluebirds. Highlands finished 6-6 last year losing 35-34 at South Oldham in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs.

The 6-foot-3-inch, 192-pound Cramer ended up completing 40-of-66 passes for 519 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions. Cramer punted and also played a lot at wide receiver during the regular season and wound up third on the team with 20 catches for 264 yards and a touchdown against Lexington Catholic.

Cramer said he hopes to read defenses better this year. Deaton said defenses employed different strategies at certain parts of the field since as inside the Red Zone. Those schematic changes forced the Bluebirds to turn the ball over or make a negative play putting Highlands in second or third-and-long situations.

"I got a little bit of a taste of that last year in the South Oldham game," Cramer said. "They switched defenses on us a little bit - Cover-Three and Cover-Two. If I recognize it, I can audible to the linemen telling them what needs to be done, change the route if need be (or) if I see something on the outside, maybe a mismatch with the corner."

Since Towles started, Cramer became the third Highlands senior quarterback to play wide receiver as a junior to get on the field at the varsity level. Hoge, a 2015 Highlands graduate, and Donovan McCoy, a 2013 Highlands alum, were the other two. Those two led the Bluebirds to state championships as seniors. But Deaton said not every player can go from one position to another then back to the original position.

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"A lot of times, it can give the kids experience later in a position that they are hoping to play. A guy playing that is playing receiver as opposed to quarterback can gain a better idea of what's going on in a game with the secondary and how routes work," Deaton said. "So when he becomes a quarterback or something else, he's better able to execute his position just because he knows how the other position works. That can happen a lot of times with a lot of different positions. I don't think it's that hard to do at all."

Highlands will have a number of new starters on the offensive line this year. The only returning starter is 6-2, 230-pound junior Trent Johnson. Candidates to step into those roles are juniors Will Gastright, Will Salmon along with sophomores Brock Huber, Jackson Curry and Dylan Turner.

"We're all hard-workers. Trent is really going to help us on the O-line," Cramer said. "He's going to get the other guys going."

Hollingsworth is the first left-handed quarterback the Bluebirds have had since McCoy. On the 3-5 junior varsity squad last year, Hollingsworth earned the squad's Offensive Most Valuable Player honors.

The 6-0, 185-pound Hollingsworth said he's been watching a lot of film in the off-season. The Bluebirds saw a variety of defenses this past year.

"Watching more and more coverages and how different teams run theirs, that really helps expose you to what they'll do in games and it'll help you with your tendencies and decision-making during the play," Hollingsworth said. "You see a lot of 3-4 and 4-3. Not many people ran a five-man front."

Like Cramer, Hoge and McCoy, Hollingsworth said wide receiver is a possible position if he does not earn the starting job. The Bluebirds have not hesitated to switch players from one side to the other in the past and even let guys play on both sides of the ball in spot situations.

"It's just good to have a bunch of guys with the same mindset of, 'Hey. It's not about us. It's about the team,' and just doing stuff that will help the team as a whole instead of as an individual," Hollingsworth said. "Once we help the team, we'll start winning more."

Hergott helped the Highlands Freshman Team to its best record since 2010 at 8-1 with the lone loss coming to Covington Catholic. Hergott completed 118-of-154 passes for 1,762 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also rushed for eight touchdowns. He's been working on his footwork and reading defenses in the off-season when not playing basketball. Teammates such as Joe Buten, Mason SouthJason Noe and Sam Vinson gave Hergott great support at the skill positions.

The 6-1, 160-pound Hergott recently attended the United States Army All-American Football Combine in San Antonio, Texas. Current NFL players such as Cam Newton, DeMarco Murray and Matt Stafford have attended that combine. He was one of 14 freshmen to attend the combine.

"The defensive backs are bigger, faster and stronger on the varsity level," Hergott said. "You really have to be quick with your throws. (My teammates) make my job easy because they make all the plays. I just have to get them the ball."

Hergott knows he will receive a lot of advice from his family and coaches. His father Kevin (a 1987 Highlands graduate) rushed for more than 1,000 yards and played linebacker on the 1986 team that went 11-1 losing to Danville, 35-34 in double overtime in the second round of the playoffs. His brother Brandon (Highlands Class of 2014) played wide receiver on the 2012 Class 4A state champion and 2013 Class 4A state runner-up squads and his other brother Austin (Highlands Class of 2016 now at Central Michigan University) quarterbacked the 2015 team to the Class 5A state semi-finals.

"I'll just listen and try to do what they tell me to the best of my ability and see how good I get," Hergott said. "I'll work as hard as I can."

Hergott said he will continue to work on his quarterback skills on the junior varsity level if he can't get on the field on varsity at that spot. Hergott will partake in spring drills while Cramer and Hollingsworth will be playing baseball.

Deaton said the Bluebirds did not change much offensively from 2016 to 2017. The exception is utilizing the tight end spot more with seniors-to-be Nate Roberts at 6-1, 192 pounds and Austin King at 6-3, 195 pounds toward the end of the season. Roberts had 15 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns last year and King hauled in 10 passes for 96 yards.

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"That's something our guys adjusted to and we as a staff adjusted to trying to find the best guys to take on that role to be a tight end and an inside wide receiver," Deaton said. "I think guys are now seeing that is another position available in our offense. So now we have more guys competing to do that. We're getting better at utilizing that position because it just does so much more for us offensively. It's another running gap that the defense has to account for while still also having to account for a passing threat. Anytime we can make defense think about more things in the game, that's good for us."

The Bluebirds had not really used a tight end since senior Nick True did it during the 2013 season. They hoped to run some plays with Jack Telek in 2014, but he went down with a season-ending injury in the scrimmage against Louisville Trinity.

"That really changed things for us that year," Deaton said. "We didn't really have another guy who could do what he did so we kind of went the rest of the season without a tight end. After that, we never really utilized one until this past season. It's something I think we've really gotten a lot out of and hopefully will continue to do so now that we feel we have a few guys in our program that can do that."

Highlands has been working out after school three times per week in preparation for the 2018 season. Spring football begins after the end of basketball season.

Bluebirds Elect to Stay in 5A in Preliminary 2019-22 Alignment:

Numbers suggested the Bluebirds move back to Class 4A for the 2019 through 2022 seasons. But the Highlands administration elected to stay in 5A. Highlands Director of Athletics Matt Haskamp cited two reasons for that in travel and making the regular season more meaningful. He said it was a collaborative effort in making the decision that included Head Coach Brian Weinrich. But only an administrator such as the principal, the superintendent or AD can vote on the move at the state level.

It will be the same District 5 with defending state champion and arch-rival Covington Catholic. But Dixie Heights moves up to Class 6A. The other three opponents are set to be Cooper, Conner and Boone County. Those three currently compete in 6A.

Cooper and Boone County have been on the Highlands schedule the last three years. Highlands last played Conner in 2006.

District 6 in Class 4A is slated to have two teams in the northern three counties in Kentucky in it in Scott and Covington Holmes. The other three district opponents are slated to be Boyd County, Rowan County and Harrison County. Mapquest lists about a two-hour, 39 minute drive from Holmes to Boyd County and nearly a two-hour drive from Holmes to Rowan County.

"You're looking at a lot of things," Haskamp said. "You're looking at filling your schedule. You're looking at putting your kids in a position where they can compete. You have a five-team district here in the (Northern Kentucky Athletic Conference) vs. having two other team then having one-hour bus rides multiple times throughout the year. If you're in a smaller district, you have to find more non-district games. That's just a really hard thing to do."

Highlands competed in Class 4A between 2011 and 2014 winning the state championship three times and finishing runner-up in 2013. The district opponents during that time were CovCath, Holmes and Harrison County. Pendleton County played in the district in 2011 and 2012 before electing to drop out for the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

District 5 had a fourth team in Grant County in it for 2015 and 2016. But the Kentucky High School Athletic Association let the Braves drop out of district play for 2017 and 2018. That left a three-team district and District 3 champion South Oldham earned a bye as a result. The District 6 winner could also have a bye this fall.

But the KHSAA addressed that problem for this cycle. Once teams are placed in a district for the cycle, teams will have to pay a $1500 forfeit fee unless an additional contract is signed between the schools per Bylaw 22 Board of Control policy. Only the smallest football-playing school in the state in Fulton City out in western Kentucky has dropped out of district play for the 2019-2022 cycle.

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