|PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior linebacker Nelson Bibb prepares for the game against Dixie Heights. Highlands allowed just 183 points last year.|
It had been a few seasons since the tradition-rich Highlands Bluebirds football team had been mentioned in the state championship conversation.
While the Bluebirds did not quite get there last season, they did take a major step in that direction recording their first double-digit win since 2014 with a 10-3 mark. Highlands made the region finals for the first time since 2015 last season.
The Bluebirds entered the region championship against Covington Catholic hoping to avenge a close 21-14 loss in Fort Thomas during the regular season. Highlands had the defending state champions in good position at halftime trailing just 7-0. But the Colonels pulled away for a 36-0 victory. Highlands graduated 23 seniors from that team.
That defeat more than served as motivation for the returning players to come back better for 2019. That mentality has been with the Bluebirds for a long time even before the new field house opened on campus in 2015.
If you can get those guys to show up every morning thinking, 'I have to get better at something.' There's a purpose why I'm here. If you're just showing up just to show up, then you're just wasting everybody's time. I really feel there's a bunch of guys that show up every morning with that purpose and it's contagious."
The Highlands defense returned to a top-notch level last year. But unfortunately in the three losses to Covington Catholic and Scott County, returning senior wide receiver and back-up quarterback Adam Weyer said the Highlands wide receivers had difficulties breaking away from solid defensive backs. That forced the Bluebirds to try to run the ball more making things more difficult to move the ball.
New Highlands Offensive Coordinator Sam Umberg made many people in the community smile when he said the Bluebirds will reincorporate a mentality of trying to score as quickly as possible this season. That reminded people of the last few seasons when Dale Mueller was head coach when the players ran to the line of scrimmage, lined up and tried to hike the ball as quick as possible trying to wear out opponents. Mueller and Umberg agreed on the importance of conditioning to run a spread offense like that.
"If we're out of shape, we can't go that fast," Umberg said. "We're not quite where we need to be yet as far as conditioning, but I trust before kickoff this season, we'll get to that point."
Donovan McCoy and wide receiver Luke Turner and 825 in 2000 with Gino Guidugli at quarterback. But Weinrich quickly reminds people that the 2014 Class 4A state championship team led by quarterback Beau Hoge and wide receiver Alex Veneman broke the state record for most plays in a season with 932. Weinrich said it's a program mentality based on the team's personnel.
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Highlands outscored opponents, 409-193 for an average of about 32-15 last year. Offensively, the Bluebirds put up 1,639 yards rushing and 2,132 yards passing for averages of just more than 126 rushing and 164 passing per game.
Things start up front on the offensive line for the Bluebirds with the return of three starters in seniors Dylan Turner, Brock Huber and center Max Dierig. Highlands graduated two starters in Will Salmon and Trent Johnson. Will Gastright also graduated. Nick Bowman also played linebacker and kicked for the Bluebirds. Bowman took his talents to Wittenberg University in Springfield (Ohio). Turner reminded people experience doesn't guarantee anything.
"(Highlands Offensive Line) Coach (Scott) Turner and Coach (Wayne) Hall were telling us this off-season, nobody's job is safe," Dylan Turner said. "All the younger guys need to work hard, too. They're competing for a spot. No senior's spot is solidified yet."
A number of offensive linemen are looking to step forward this season. They are seniors Jackson Bibb, Jackson Curry, juniors Jake Arthur, Chase Gordon, Trevor Harmes, Seth Mullikin and sophomores Conner Barton, Nate DuPont, Rayven Hogle, Kaleb Kissee and Nathaniel Weidner. Junior Jackson Roy moved from the defensive line to the offensive line this year.
"We're really encouraged by what they're bringing to the table," Umberg said. "They're showing a grit that you love to see with any offensive line. We're trying to push them to be the leaders of the team and right now, they're accepting it."
Highlands graduated a number of skill position players in quarterback Grady Cramer, running back Cooper Schwalbach and wide receivers Nate Roberts and Austin King. Cramer passed for 2,024 yards completing 166-of-291 passes for 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Schwalbach rushed for 922 yards on 178 rushes and 11 touchdowns for an average of just more than five yards per carry. King led Highlands with 44 catches for 360 yards and two touchdowns. Roberts had a team-high 722 yards receiving on 41 receptions and nine touchdowns. Cramer took his talents to Morehead State University and Schwalbach will attend National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Southern Union State Community College in Wadley (Alabama).
Highlands also graduated six other wide receivers. They are Tyler Bracken, Logan Guy, Carter Crawford, Eddie Etter, Liam Ehrman and Brady Walz.
The Bluebirds hope to make teams defend the entire field. Senior quarterback Collin Hollingsworth brings Highlands a dual threat with his ability to throw and take off for the first down when the pocket breaks down. In limited action on varsity last year, Hollingsworth completed 12-of-25 passes for 100 yards and completed a crucial touchdown pass on 4th-and-Goal in the win over Simon Kenton last year. Hollingsworth also rushed for 163 yards on 12 carries and two touchdowns. Weyer, junior Jake Fahlbusch and sophomore Isaac Surrey will back up Hollingsworth.
Highlands has a number of options at running back. Junior Joe Buten returns after finishing second with 537 yards on 83 carries and nine touchdowns for an average of about 6.5 yards per carry. Senior Tyler Brune and sophomores Dylan Honchell and Griffin Richter could also get carries this year.
Highlands saw junior Hunter Ahlfeld emerge onto the scene at wide receiver last year with 29 catches for 417 yards and six touchdowns. Weyer had 12 catches for 137 yards and a touchdown. Senior Ethan Houze came on late hauling in 13 catches for 191 yards and four touchdowns.
Senior Jack Delagrange returns for his senior season at wide receiver after playing linebacker two years ago and Joey Deschler hopes to contribute after an injury cut his season short early last year. Others hoping to contribute at wide receiver are seniors Ryan Garvey, Conner Noon, juniors Patrick Clukey, Chase Hoffman, Dominic Robinson, sophomores Aiden Halpin, Jacob Hudson, Clayton Lloyd, Paxton Porter and Jacob Welch.
"We've been running a lot more this year," Noon said. "Our goal this year is more of a fast offense with people flying around. Being able to run a lot more is a key to that."
Highlands will run the 3-5 defensive scheme for the third straight year. Teams put up 1,939 yards rushing and 1,246 yards passing against the Bluebirds last year for averages of just more than 149 rushing and about 96 passing.
Weinrich said the coaches showed the players film from the 2010 season the other day. That team won the fourth straight of a state-record six consecutive state championships going 14-1.
"It's just a matter of the execution and the effort level. Regardless of what scheme we're running, the fact that there a lot of guys that have played a lot of football the past couple of years, that definitely helps because they understand how to play," Weinrich said. "They understand how they're supposed to fit. They understand the techniques they're supposed to use. They understand what the calls are. The biggest thing is they understand how to fix problems. They know if this happens, it's probably because of this and so they're able to get that taken care of on the field among themselves before they come over and coaches have to address any of that."
Things start up front with the defensive line. Gavin Downard, Andrew Wyckoff and Ben Sisson graduated there. But seniors Griffin Welsch, Conner Zell and Zach Lewin return there. Lewin tied for a team-high four sacks last year. Others hoping to contribute on the defensive line are seniors Sylvan Frazier, Tyler Phillips, juniors Vance Moore, Brenden Nickelman, Conner Shelton, Seth Peterson and sophomore Ivan Roller.
"We'll be rotating a lot and I think we'll do pretty well," White said. "If one person doesn't do his job, it could lead to a touchdown."
Senior Brycen Huddleston returns for his third year starting at linebacker. The hard-hitting Eastern Michigan University commit had two fumble recoveries, two quarterback sacks and one interception.
Aside from Bowman, Alex Starkey and Jackson Hagedorn graduated. But Highlands returns a number of linebackers with varsity experience such as seniors Nelson Bibb, Brennan Haigis, Mason Schwalbach and junior Mason South. Others fighting to contribute at linebacker are junior Jack Cavanaugh, sophomore Dawson Gauspohl, Logan Henry, Henry King, Eli LaFrange and Mason Welsch.
"It's pretty important. I feel like we've got a lot coming back," Schwalbach said. "The guys are starting to figure out how to run everything. We're starting to get comfortable playing with each other. It's going pretty well so far. We play for each other."
Senior Wes Bowling spent the last two years at running back. But he converted to linebacker this year.
"It's really a team effort," Bowling said. "We're willing to do anything just to get another championship up on that (Highlands score) board. I'm going to contribute as much as I can and we're going to have another good year. I'm very excited."
The secondary may look somewhat different with the graduation of Bailey Armstrong, Casey Greene, Addison Reynolds and Kyle Turner.
But senior Jacob Brass and junior Jason Noe return there along with seniors John Kohler and Noah LaMothe. Brass had three interceptions last year. Senior defensive back Sawyer Depp said the defense has been focused on fundamentals to keep opponents out of the end zone.
"I think what may surprise people is it's not always the person that makes the play on the ball that's made the play," Depp said. "It is something on defense we always make sure we speak about. If we run a type of defense where a guy on the other side of the field may have made the play because we made perfect coverage and forced the quarterback to throw a ball that he didn't want to throw and made him look at his second option. There are multiple parts of the field and the guy who made the play isn't always at the ball. It's just as important that you're working hard every single play even if you're not near the ball."
A number of others could contribute at defensive back this year. They are senior Max Guetle, juniors Daniel Burchannan, Jacob Buecker, Tom Kempf, Luke Koenig, sophomores Trenton Bridewell, Will Hartman and George King.
Highlands faces four different opponents this year including Northern Kentucky schools Conner and Scott. The Bluebirds have not faced those two since 2006 and 2010 respectively. Highlands also faces Tennessee power Knoxville Catholic and 2017 Class 3A state champion Boyle County.
Highlands takes on the defending Class 6A champions in a non-traditonal scrimmage on Friday at 6 p.m. The Bluebirds then scrimmage Louisville Ballard on Aug. 16 at home at 7 p.m. The season opener is Aug. 23 at Scott at 7 p.m.