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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

2018 Highlands Football Defense/Special Teams Preview

Highlands Hopes to Run More Dimensions of 3-5 Defense This Fall

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior linebacker Mason Schwalbach (94) lines up in punt coverage in a game at Greenwood last year.

If one song verse describes a huge reason why high school student-athletes take the field for any reason, this would be it.

"I do it for the glory."

The song named "Glory" released by the Score band - the same band that produced "Unstoppable" - on June 29, 2018 more than describes the tradition-rich history of the Highlands Bluebirds football program.

Highlands owns the second-most wins in the country in program history with a record of 885-249-26 in 103 seasons of football. Only Valdosta (Georgia) owns more wins with an overall record of 917-230-34. Highlands owns 23 state championships in its glorious history second in the Commonwealth only behind Louisville Trinity's 25.

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Following its first losing season since going 4-5-1 in 1955 at 3-8 in 2016, Highlands tried to climb back up to the top of Class 5A where it enjoyed four state championships between 2007 and 2010 on its way to a state record six in a row. But in three games, Highlands lost in the fourth quarter by a total of nine points leaving the Bluebirds at 6-6 for their first even .500 season since going 5-5 in 1952.

The 35-34 second-round playoff loss at South Oldham was especially painful because it meant Highlands would not receive another chance to play the arch-rival Covington Catholic Colonels in Park Hills in the region championship game. CovCath went on to capture the seven state championship and first-ever undefeated season in school history.

Some of the issues on defense led to another early playoff exit. The Bluebirds switched from a 3-4 base defense to a 3-5 look last year adding one linebacker and taking away a defensive back. They went to that look in the second half of the 2014 Class 4A state championship game and it helped the Bluebirds rally for a 49-42 win after trailing 42-21 at halftime to the Owensboro Red Devils.

Highlands hopes a second season with that scheme leads to better results this year.

The Bluebirds allowed 359 points, 3,336 yards rushing and 1,482 yards passing for a total of 4,818. Teams averaged just under 30 points, about 402 yards total with 278 coming on the ground and just under 124 through the air. Those were improvements from 2016 when teams scored 463 points, rushed for 3,343 yards and passed for 1,938 for a total of 5,281 for averages of just more than 42 points, just under 304 rushing and 176 passing for a total average of just more than 480 yards per game.

But those averages came nowhere near some recent state championship seasons. The 2011 undefeated Class 4A state championship team allowed 1,817 yards rushing and 1,303 passing for a total of 3,120 yards and 191 points for averages of about 12.7 points and 208 yards per game with average of just more than 121 on the ground and just under 87 yards through the air. Fifth-year Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich has previously said allowing an average of 150 yards per game rushing would be good, anything below that would be great. Defensive success goes back to a common theme.

"When it comes to schemes, you have to trust the guy next to you that he's going to do what he needs to do. You have to do what you need to do," Weinrich said. "It's getting there and it's getting there quickly, which is exciting. They're getting better at trusting each other. It's not that it's a negative that they don't trust each other. They just actually have a better understanding of what everybody is doing. We're further along. We have a lot of guys coming back that played a lot of football last year. They were young guys out there just trying to survive. Now they understand what we're doing. 

Those guys had a great spring. We're trying to get a lot of those early season mistakes, alignment issues and things like that out of our system now so when we hit the field against Cooper, we're ready to go. There are going to be issues. But we feel we're empowering these guys with the knowledge of everything. We're trying to encourage them to be those leaders and fix the problems on the field. Don't wait until Saturday mornings with the films. You guys understand how it's supposed to work. We don't have time to sit around. Fix it now. Take ownership of it."

Teams often implement base defenses the first year of a new scheme. Coaching staffs then often add stunts or blitzes among other tweaks depending on personnel. But Weinrich said it's not so much that as it is something else.

"It's the stuff that you had is run better and you trust running it. There were plenty of things we had in last year. We didn't run them in games because we weren't ready," Weinrich said. "A blitz for example isn't as simple as you go. It's not just go, which is the perception. It's the alignment, then if he's blitzing, that's going to impact a couple other guys. They have to know how that's going to change their alignment, how it's going to change their pass-drop responsibilities so it's a whole group thing. We've really altered how we approach summer to try to get a lot of that stuff going. We've really gotten proficient at running a lot of different things. We made a lot of mistakes early in the summer. If we'd have played games early in June, we'd have had long Saturdays breaking down film. We did a lot of stuff (early one August morning) and we sat here and watched the film. It was like, 'Alright. We feel good about these certain things we can do now that we couldn't do before."

For years, program supporters have desired to see more players play both offensively and defensively.  Highlands started two-platooning players in 2010 taking advantage of its depth. Last year, senior Griffin Huber did that as a wide receiver offensively and at linebacker on defense. The roster lists a number of players at two positions. Returning senior offensive lineman Trent Johnson saw action on the defensive line in spot situations along with Michael Dunn, a senior last year. Johnson could see time going both ways again this year.

But Weinrich said which player goes both ways will be on a player-by-player basis. He said the perception is that a player who excels on one side of the ball should be able to do the same thing on the other side. One example is a good wide receiver also excelling as a defensive back. Weinrich pointed out that even though those positions are athletic positions requiring nice speed and quickness, they are two different mindsets. Wide receivers go forward running the play that was called while defensive back are peddling backward and reacting to the play.

"We still feel that playing one position makes you the best player that you can be. If you get 100 percent reps at one position, you're going to be way better," Weinrich said. "There are some guys that have proven their talents could lend themselves to doing multiple things and it has been a balancing act to try to get them reps at other positions. 

The down side to that is they're taking reps away from another position so there have been times where we've had to say, 'Here for a while, you can't go do that because you slipped in whatever your primary position is.' We all tell them this is your primary position, but you can help us somewhere else if you've proven you can. We've had to take a break from it from some of them for a while. Some of them are listed in spots, but they haven't even done it yet because their primary position is too important. We're not going to make one side of the ball suffer because we're trying to get this guy over and get this guy over. But we have had guys this spring and this summer that have gone and worked at different positions. That's a huge point of coaching meetings is finding that delicate balance of making sure that the guys are in a position to be effective, especially early in the season. We have to find out what that means for the guys in how much they can do, what's too much, what's too little."

No matter the offensive scheme, things start up front on the defensive line. The Bluebirds are led there by seniors Gavin DownardBen Sisson and junior Zach Lewin. Senior Will Salmon also saw time on the defensive line after Sisson went down for the season with an injury against Dixie Heights. Downard played some linebacker last year. Salmon could also see time on the offensive line and Sisson could see action at tight end offensively.

Weinrich said a defensive lineman's main jobs are to read keys and hold his point even if they are double teamed. That often lets the linebackers and defensive backs come up, fill holes and make tackles on running plays. Sisson made a pick-six against Simon Kenton last year. The running back ran out into the flats on a pass play. Sisson rushed that direction, jumped into the air as the ball came out of the quarterback's throwing hand, batted it forward and grabbed it for an 11-yard touchdown.

Highlands graduated Korbyn Poole, Nate Davis and Nick Biltz from last year's defensive line. Others looking to contribute on the defensive line are seniors Nate RobertsAndrew Wyckoff, juniors Martin Foose, Sylvan Frazier, Brock Huber, Preston McAlpin, Tyler Phillips, Griffin Welsch, Conner Zell, Brennan WhiteMax Dierig, sophomores Andrew Arentsen, Tommy Ferris, Brenden Nickelman, Seth Peterson, Jackson Roy and Conner Shelton. Dierig, McAlpin and Huber could also see time on the offensive line and Roberts played wide receiver on varsity last year.

"You just have to know your place in the defense," Wyckoff said. "For a defensive lineman, you just have to stay in your gap and make sure you're not trying to be the all-star of the defense. You have to be disciplined and make sure you're not going to do anything stupid or out of line."

The linebacker corps had its fair share of injuries last year. It hurt in the losses to Ryle and Scott County. Scott County rushed for 410 yards and Ryle had 449.

Highlands will again see its fair share of Wing-T and spread offenses. The linebackers could play closer to if not up near the line against run-oriented teams and back in pass coverage against spread teams.

"You're going to tweak a little bit. It might not be a sudden change," Weinrich said. "This team is going to emphasize something this week that the team the next week might emphasize the opposite. So that week, you might have to get back to maybe a different variation of that coverage or a different set of blitzes, or a different set of running plays. Are those guys going to be able to handle it all? It's not so much the physical side of it. It's the mental side of it."

Highlands graduated Logan Seiple, Logan Sparks and Crosley New from the linebacking corps. But junior Brycen Huddleston returns after making a huge impact last year. He returned from injury against Dixie Heights recording a nine-yard sack, a fumble recovery and numerous tackles. Huddleston later saw action returning punts and kickoffs and could see action at running back last year. He played some wide receiver on the freshman team years ago.

Seniors Nick Bowman, Jackson Hagedorn, Alex Starkey and junior Mason Schwalbach return after contributing there last year. Juniors Nelson Bibb, Logan Webster, Brennan Haigis, sophomores Jack Cavanaugh and Mason South could also see playing time at linebacker. Haigis and Bowman could also see time on the offensive line. Starkey had a team-high three fumble recoveries last year.

"We really just take it one week at a time. We treat every game like it's our last," Hagedorn said. "We don't really focus on what the people outside (the locker room) say. But we do always try to do better than last year. We throw the chip on our shoulders and try to do better each practice."

Defensively last year, Highlands recovered 15 fumbles and intercepted 15 passes. The secondary play improved a lot from 2016 when the Bluebirds picked off just three passes. The graduated Joe Steiden set a new school record with four interceptions in a game in the season-opening win at Cooper. Steiden finished with six on the season to go with one fumble recovery and another graduated senior in Harrison Traylor recorded three interceptions. Another defensive back in Ethan Sketch also graduated.

Senior Bailey Armstrong started the year in the secondary. Armstrong had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries last year. Senior Casey Greene and a pair of juniors in Jacob Brass and Hunter Ahlfeld saw action in the secondary late last year as the result of injuries in the secondary. Greene had a 21-yard interception return for a touchdown at Greenwood as the result of a huge Highlands defensive philosophy in the secondary. Ahlfeld could also see time at wide receiver.

"We always have to stay deep. You can't let anyone behind you or else you're going to get exposed and get scored on," Greene said. "You have to read the receiver, know what he's doing and just make a play on the ball."

A number of other players could see time at defensive back. They are seniors Kyle Turner, Addison Reynolds, juniors Max Guetle, Sawyer Depp, John Kohler, sophomores Jason Noe, Tom Kempf, Luke Koenig, Jacob Buecker and Bryson Cody. Depp played some varsity at running back for Highlands last year.

Special Teams:

Highlands did not recover two onside kicks late in losses at Simon Kenton and South Oldham. Bowman returns to kick field goals and extra points and senior Grady Cramer returns as punter.

The Bluebirds have six home games this year after having just four this year. They only leave the northern three counties once on Sept. 14 at Lexington Catholic.

"Playing six home games is exciting. It helps your after-school preparation on Friday," Weinrich said. "You have a bit more time to do some things. Guys are excited about playing at home. They get the home crowd. We have a bit of excitement here. It's such a unique atmosphere. There may be some changes with Campbell County having a new head coach and Greenwood having a new head coach. Other than that, we know what to expect. It's time to strap it on, get better and go."

Highlands opens the season Friday at home against Cooper. It starts at 7 p.m.

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