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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Preview: Highlands traveling to Corbin to take on Knoxville Catholic

Bluebirds Face Tough Task in Corbin

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior wide receiver Jack Delagrange heads upfield after a catch against Scott on Friday.
The Highlands Bluebirds football team will have its pioneer moment this Saturday on a neutral field.

Highlands will face a team from Tennessee for the first time in school history when the Bluebirds travel to Corbin to face the Knoxville Catholic Fighting Irish in the Cumberland Falls Pigskin Classic. It is part of a doubleheader Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich and Corbin Head Coach Justin Haddix worked out. Corbin takes on Notre Dame out of Chattanooga (Tennessee) in the second game. Corbin and Highlands will swap opponents next season.

Both the Bluebirds and Fighting Irish won their season openers. Highlands pulled away from Scott in the second half for a 42-13 win and KnoxCath blanked Chuckey-Doak (from east Tennessee), 48-0.

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KnoxCath enters the week ranked fourth in first Associated Press poll in Tennessee's Division II, Class AAA, East Region out of 12 teams. Tennessee splits its member schools into Division I for the public schools and a few non-scholarship private schools and Division II for private schools. A number of the private schools moved to Division II this year. It had previously been the public and non-scholarship private schools in Division I.

The Fighting Irish Head Coach is Steve Matthews. Matthews played quarterback for five seasons between 1994 and 1998 with the Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Oilers. Matthews took over as head coach in December, 2012.

Matthews has guided the Fighting Irish to a record of 63-19 during his tenure including state championships in Class 4A in 2015 and 5A in 2017. Class 6A is the largest class in Division I. KnoxCath had gone 21-23 the previous four years.

"Highlands has a great history," Matthews said. "They are extremely well-coached and play very hard. This will definitely be a challenge."

Matthews admitted the team's strengths reside on their offensive and defensive lines. Their offensive line averages 280 pounds. It features senior guard Bryn Tucker and senior center Cooper Mays. Tucker is committed to NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision defending national champion Clemson University and Mays is committed to the University of Tennessee.

The Fighting Irish run a spread-option offense that Weinrich described as "pretty unique, pretty cool actually." It's not a traditional option offense where the quarterback takes the snap, gives or fakes to the fullback, then runs outside where he keeps it or pitches it to a running back. But running one way and pitching it to the running back is part of the repertoire.

"I'm not sure if we've seen this much talent on offense at all positions," Weinrich said. "We've played some teams that had great skill guys or maybe a couple good linemen. They've got five great offensive linemen. They have great quarterbacks. They have great wide receivers. They've great running backs and a great scheme."

Senior wide receiver and Marshall University commit Chancellor Bright leads the KnoxCath wide receivers. The starting quarterback is senior Jack Jancek. Jancek, the son of former Tennessee assistant John Jancek, completed 4-of-5 passes for 54 yards in the win over Chuckey-Doak. Jancek also had two carries for 54 yards including one for a touchdown of 28 yards.

But sophomore Kaden Martin, the son of former 1998 National Championship Tennessee quarterback and current UT assistant Tee Martin, came into the game and made his debut. Kaden Martin completed 2-of-3 passes for 36 yards and had one carry for a 20-yard touchdown.

Weinrich was also impressed with the third quarterback to play for the Irish against Chuckey-Doak in sophomore Caden Buckles. Buckles ran for a two touchdowns. Buckles had some starts in 2018 when Jancek was injured.

"The offense typically varies on the quarterback skill set," Matthews said. "With our depth at that position, we are running the quarterback more than we ever have."

Highlands has historically done a great job using its speed on the defensive line to negate size on opposing offensive lines. The Bluebirds recorded five interceptions of Scott sophomore quarterback Gus Howlett and senior defensive back Max Guetle recovered a fumble. In one case, senior defensive lineman Conner Zell hit Howlett as Howlett tried to throw the ball. Senior linebacker Brycen Huddleston dove after the errant throw and recorded the interception setting up the Bluebirds deep in Eagle territory.

"That's the key with everything we do," Weinrich said. "We have to use our advantages and our advantages are our speed and our quickness. We've got to try to use that to our advantage and take advantage of their size. Hopefully, we can move faster than they can move."

Highlands limited Scott's Spread offense to 226 yards on 64 plays for an average of about 3.5 per play and held the Eagles to just 6-of-15 for 40 percent on third down. Scott completed some long passes against the Bluebirds and some quick outs. But once Highlands pounced on the quick outs, that limited the Eagle attack.

Senior defensive back Jacob Brass had two interceptions for the Bluebirds. He ran one back for a touchdown at Scott.

"They're fast. But if we do our job, I think we'll be fine in the secondary," Guetle said. "We have some things up our sleeves."

The Highlands offensive line will face the challenge of taking on senior 6-foot-5-inch, 252-pound defensive end Tyler Baron. Baron has offers from Tennessee, Ohio State, Kentucky, Oregon and Oklahoma. The Fighting Irish run a 4-2 defense with a three-invert cover scheme in the back.

Highlands struggled offensively on the first two series against Scott. But once things straightened out there, the Bluebirds moved the ball. They racked up 310 yards on 60 plays for an average of just more than five per play.

The Bluebirds hope to run the ball better and convert on third and fourth down better. Highlands rushed for just 79 yards against the Eagles, converted 2-of-9 on third down for 22 percent and 1-of-4 for 25 percent on fourth down.

Highlands started junior left-handed quarterback Jake Fahlbusch in the first quarter before senior Collin Hollingsworth came on in the second quarter. Nine different wide receivers had catches in the win over Scott led by senior Jack Delagrange with five catches for 41 yards and two touchdowns.

"We focus on getting off the ball and getting off press coverage," said Ryan Garvey, Highlands senior wide receiver. "The more we practice that and get that down pat, it's easier to get open and allows the quarterback to have many more options so he doesn't have to focus on one receiver."

Highlands hopes to connect on long passes better to stretch the field. Fahlbusch hit senior Hunter Ahlfeld for a 31-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and Hollingsworth hit senior wide receiver Adam Weyer for a 20-yard pass in the second quarter.

"That's something we're repping every day in practice," said Sam Umberg, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "We have to capitalize on those opportunities when they're presented to us. We've got the guys outside. It's a matter of getting the quarterbacks and those guys on the same page and going from there."

he biggest advantage Highlands will have entering the game is depth. The Bluebirds have no one going both ways while KnoxCath has a number of players playing on both sides of the ball.

"When we're a team where we've got a true offensive unit and a true defensive unit and we're going against someone who has guys playing both ways, that makes it even more important to go fast," Umberg said. "We've got to get the play count up. We have a very strict goal with our guys on the number of plays we want to run in the game. This week, we have to hit that mark. That's going to be stressed all week long."

Matthews does not know how the team will respond in this type of game. The Fighting Irish start six sophomores and a freshman.

The Bluebirds enter the game with an overall record of 896-252-26 in its 105th season as a program. They are trying to become the second team in the country with 900 or more victories in school history.

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