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Thursday, August 9, 2018

2018 Highlands Football Offense Preview

Bluebirds Hope to Add Dimensions Similar to Past Great Offenses

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior wide receiver Austin King (6) tries to get away from Greenwood linebacker Triston Wilson (34) in a game last year.
It may not have felt like it at times. But Zach Deaton, the offensive coordinator for the Highlands Bluebirds football team, will quickly point out the Bluebirds averaged just more than 30 points per game last year in the 6-6 campaign.

The Bluebirds lost three games by a total of nine points in a 6-6 campaign last year that ended with a 35-34 loss at South Oldham in the Class 5A playoffs.

"I don't think (mistakes) will be a problem for us this year. It can't be a problem for us this year," Deaton said. "That's something we've been focusing on too. We feel really good about what we're going to be able to do and not make those mental mistakes in crucial moments."

Grady Cramer and running back Cooper Schwalbach. The duo played huge roles in helping the Highlands baseball team to its second state runner-up finish in four seasons in June.
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The biggest reason for optimism on the offensive side of the ball starts with the return of two solid senior skill position players in quarterback

Schwalbach led Highlands with 882 yards rushing on 161 carries and 17 touchdowns for an average of around 5.5 yards per carry last year. Schwalbach also had 12 catches for 68 yards. Cramer started both playoff games for the Bluebirds at quarterback last year. He completed 40-of-66 passes for 519 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions. Those two starts are the most a starting quarterback has brought into their senior season since Patrick Towles in 2011.

Junior Collin Hollingsworth quarterbacked the junior varsity last year. Rising sophomore Cam Hergott transferred to Beechwood. But Highlands is also working out junior wide receiver Adam Weyer and sophomore defensive back Jason Noe at the position to develop depth there.

During the regular season, Cramer ran the Muddle Huddle offense on two-point conversion runs and played some wide receiver. Cramer caught 20 passes for 264 yards and a touchdown. Last year's starting quarterback in Carl Schoellman graduated as well as the team's second-leading rusher in running back Larry Wilson.

"A lot of our skill guys for us offensively last year were juniors that are seniors now," Deaton said. "They played an entire year and they're really, really good football players. We're just really pumped about those skill guys. The ones that have experience have good leadership and some of our newer guys that will have a chance to play this year."

Juniors Wes Bowling and Sawyer Depp received some carries on varsity when Wilson and Schwalbach were both injured. Depp could also play defensive back. Sophomore Joe Buten could have an impact there along with juniors Brycen Huddleston, Chris Cannon and Tyler Brune.

"We have a bunch of fast guys, big guys. We're playing hard, fast," Bowling said. "We trust each other so that's a big, key thing. Things are going smooth. It puts a lot of pressure on defenses."

The biggest question mark on offense entering the off-season centered on the offensive line where only senior starter Trent Johnson returned. The Bluebirds graduated six offensive linemen in Keaton Huddleston, Evan Owens, Michael Dunn, Josh Homer, Justin Merkle and Sam Sparks.

"This spring, that was one of our main focuses by the coaching staff and players," Deaton said. "That was our starting point. Now we really have a good, solid group of guys playing up front offensively."
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Senior Will Salmon played on the defensive line on varsity last year, but was originally an offensive lineman. Senior Nick Bowman and junior Brennan Haigis could see time there and at linebacker on defense. Johnson, juniors Max DierigBrock Huber and Preston McAlpin could see time on both lines this year. Others vying for playing time on the offensive line are senior Will Gastright, juniors Jackson Curry, Jackson Bibb, Dylan Turner, sophomores Jake Arthur, Chase Gordon, Trevor Harmes, Charlie Moore and Seth Mullikin. Once again, the offensive linemen credit offensive line coaches Scott Turner and Wayne Hall for helping prepare them for the varsity level.

"It's pretty nice that we have a good set of a lot of guys that can come in and do something," Turner said. "We have our starting five then we definitely have a few guys that can rotate around. My dad (Scott Turner) been coaching here for more than 20 years now so they definitely know what they're doing. Everything they're telling us is right. It really helps us going forward knowing they're putting us in the best situations we can be in."

Highlands generally sees a number of defenses throughout the year. They could range from the 3-3 stack to the traditional 3-4 look. Quick adjustments on defense by opponents led to some turnovers last year.

"I don't think we'll have a problem with it," Deaton said. "Our offense is set to where it doesn't really matter what the front or the box is. Since spring, we've been going against multiple, different things. As many things we can throw at them and make difficult for them in practice, the better."

Highlands plans to use the tight end position this season for the first time in four years. Seniors Ben Sisson and Austin King could see time there. Senior Nate Roberts is the team's leading returning receiver with 15 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns. King caught 10 passes for 96 yards last year. Roberts and Sisson are also slated to play on the defensive line.\

"Grady, myself and the other receivers vibe well together," Roberts said. "Grady has been throwing to me for four years now so it's like we have a connection now. Everybody will be there soon. We're a versatile offense."

Highlands graduated seven wide receivers from last year in Nick VenemanJared WoganGrant SummersGriffin HuberChas SandJason Paul and Jack Shultz. But others ready to step in are seniors Tyler Bracken, Carter Crawford, Logan Guy, Liam Ehram, Eddie Etter, Brady Walz, juniors Shabaz Butt, Ryan Garvey, Joey Deshler, Ethan Houze, Conner Noon, sophomores Patrick Clukey, Gavin Curtis, Jake Fahlbusch, Dominic Robinson and Sam Vinson.

Like other sports, the Highlands coaching staff generally does not have to spend a bunch of time on fundamentals. The Fort Thomas Youth Junior Football League helps the players prepare for the high school level.

"That's the advantage our youth league has," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We have a lot of coaches that are just fired up about it, really taking it seriously and doing a good job of getting those guys prepared. The biggest thing is just loving the game and being excited about playing. That's the biggest challenge really all sports are facing these days. There are so many other things out there that can take the interest away from these potential players. They need to be excited about going to play football, soccer, baseball or whatever it is. The Fort Thomas Junior Football League does a great job of making it an enjoyable, rewarding experience that those guys grow up saying, 'I love football. I want to keep playing.' We talk about that with them and we reap the benefits of having 80 guys on our roster right now, ten through 12."

Highlands has its scrimmage Thursday against Louisville Ballard. The freshmen and junior varsity teams play at 6 p.m. with the varsity playing at 7 p.m.

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