The toughest off-season for football players is generally between their freshmen and sophomore seasons. Mueller said some players do not come back out as sophomores out of fear of playing against older players.
That's why the coaching staff has to figure out what level each rising sophomore is ready for and where to put them on the field whether offense or defense. Players generally play on one side of the ball starting their sophomore seasons after going both directions on the freshman team. Highlands Offensive Coordinator Zach Deaton said it's another reason why the coaches get to know the players personally through weight training.
"It's a lot to take in. There's a physical aspect to it obviously being younger than a 17 or 18-year-old. There's also a mental aspect to it," Deaton said. "There are more things they have to know and they have to know it quick. The juniors and seniors already know it. I think (spring ball) is a good confidence booster where they can see, 'I'm pretty good here. I'm not so good there. I can find my fit with the new team."
Patrick Towles. Towles came into the game for the injured Will Bardo in the huge 12-7 win over Cincinnati St. Xavier six games into his sophomore season on Sept. 25, 2009. Towles started the rest of the season and all throughout the 2010 and 2011 seasons leading the Bluebirds to three state championships during their state-record run of six in a row.
|Deb Sheldon and her dog, Beans, show off their sign. Paid for by Friends of Lloyd Rogers. LloydRogersforCommissioner.com. This is an advertisement.|
The Highlands coaching staff generally does not start talking about positions on any level until the summer and this year is no exception. The main thing Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich said the staff wants to see from the rising sophomores is playing with no fear no matter who they are battling.
"Every guy out there is a varsity guy. Right now, everybody's competing against each other. This year is such a unique year," Weinrich said. "We're not holding back on anything in terms of installation or anything. All the guys are just absorbing everything. There is not a guy out there that's shying away from going against everyone. Really, the guys gain confidence going against the older guys. As coaches, you're constantly trying to preach to them about not worrying about what grade level that guy is. As a sophomore going against a senior, it can be intimidating. Since I've been here, that's what we always felt was an advantage of spring football is those young guys getting it out of their system. When you guy from day one to day seven of spring football, some of those young guys are over it already. They don't care who they're going against. That doesn't mean they're ready for Friday night. But they're getting closer to being ready."
Highlands saw several sophomores contribute at the varsity level during the 6-6 season last fall. A big one came from linebacker Brycen Huddleston. He had a fumble recovery and sacked Dixie Heights quarterback Jeremy Adams for a nine-yard loss in his return after missing the first six games with an injury. The Bluebirds shut out the Colonels, 47-0 in that game.
"I will say it is a lot faster, but you always have to hustle, ready your keys and do everything that (the coaches) teach you," Huddleston said. "Once you get in there, I remember the first play when I came back after I got hurt, you get hit by one (offensive) lineman or something, you feel it. I'm like, 'I'm actually here.' After you get over that, you start to get into it and it starts to feel more and more regular. It ends up being easier after each play now."
The Highlands freshman team finished 8-1 this past season. The Bluebird freshman team had not won that many games in a season since going 10-0 in 2010. Weinrich noted the best players at their respective positions will see action on Friday nights.
Joe Buten played running back and linebacker on the team last year. Buten did get injured during the season. But he bounced back just like he did playing football in the fifth grade when Huddleston gave him a concussion. Buten said that experience made him not afraid of facing older players.
"I'm just trying to play my game and Highlands football," Buten said. "I just try to learn from my mistakes and always play fast. If you're not playing fast, you have a higher chance of getting hurt."
Other rising sophomores that could potentially see action on Friday nights include Jason Noe and Sam Vinson. Noe played quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back on the freshman team last year and Vinson played wide receiver and defensive back. Noe threw the game-winning touchdown to Vinson in the 15-12 win over Newport Central Catholic to finish the season after starting quarterback Cam Hergott went down with an injury.
"You have to support your teammates," Noe said. "You just always have to get better, get stronger in the weight room. You always have to give 100 percent no matter what."
Spring football concludes Friday. The first game for the Bluebirds takes place on Aug. 17 in Fort Thomas against Cooper. The Bluebirds have six home games this year.