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Thursday, August 22, 2019

Highlands "chomping at the bit" to get football season started

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior defensive back John Kohler (right) zeroes in on a Ballard ball-carrier in the scrimmage Friday. Highlands opens the season Friday at Scott at 7 p.m.
It's one of those games with a lot of unknowns, which is typical for season-opening football contests.

It starts with the approximately 20-minute drive across the Licking River on I-275 to the Taylor Mill exit. The last time the Highlands Bluebirds football team played at Scott in 2010, the team and its supporters had to drive through Taylor Mill then turn back to the north off Kentucky Highway 16 to arrive at Scott High. But the completion of the new 16 route in 2014 provides people a straight shot to Scott in about five minutes from the interstate.

Once there, it will be all business for the Bluebirds, who are looking to start the season on a strong note at 7 p.m. Friday. Highlands has successfully done that all but once since 2002. That lone blemish came in a 37-13 defeat at Cooper to open the 2015 season.

"They're chomping at the bit right now," said Sam Umberg, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "I'm honestly the exact same way they are. I'm anxious to get out there and get into some full games, get some stats out there and get our guys to have some fun against a good team."

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The 23-time state champion Bluebirds did go 10-3 last year losing in the Class 5A region championship game at Covington Catholic. That 10-win season marked the first double-digit winning season for Highlands since 2014.

"It's been a great group. They've responded to everything we've asked them to do," Weinrich said. "On days like (Monday) where you have to adapt to the situation (high heat index), they don't bat an eye. They just make the day work. They still had a great day even though we couldn't get outside."

On the other side, the Scott Eagles have struggled historically. But they turned the corner in 2013 and have recorded five winning seasons in the last six years. Scott finished 10-3 in 2015 driving to the Class 4A region title game before losing to eventual state runner-up Johnson Central, 27-26 on a last-second touchdown pass.

Scott is coming off a 7-5 season that ended in the second round of the playoffs with a 50-7 defeat at Johnson Central. Eric Turner took over as head coach of the Eagles after going 44-27 in six seasons as head coach at Lloyd Memorial.

Turner guided the Juggernauts to at least the second round of the Class 2A playoffs in his last five seasons. The 2015 squad finished 9-4 losing to Newport Central Catholic in the region championship game and the 2017 team finished 8-4 winning the Class 2A, District 6 championship. The Juggernauts also beat NewCath for the first time since 1991 that year.

Turner installed a new Spread offensive scheme. But the Eagles do return one of the area's top running backs in senior Quincy Perrin. Perrin at 5-foot-10-inches and 200 pounds has rushed for more than 2,800 yards and 35 touchdowns the past two years. Perrin also had eight catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns last year.

"He runs hard. He's very patient. He finds the hole," Weinrich said of Perrin. "At the same time, he can burst and get outside and around you. He seems like he has really good hands. They're trying to use him in the passing game. They throw screens to him. He seems like a really good, all-around running back. I'm not surprised by his numbers from last season after seeing him on film this year."

Perrin can run behind four returning starters on the offensive line in seniors Eric Linton, Kaden Krallman, Trevor Addison and Jacob Randall. Last year, the Eagles averaged just more than 182 yards rushing and just more than 86 yards passing per game.

Sophomore Gus Howlett saw one game at quarterback last year on varsity. The Eagles do return senior wide receiver Jackson Hardin. Hardin had nine catches for 146 yards and a touchdown.

The 3-5 Highlands defense returns a number of players from a solid season last year. Opposing offenses averaged just more than 149 yard rushing and just under 96 passing per game against the Bluebirds last year.

Senior linebacker Brycen Huddleston headlines the returning players there. The returning varsity players include senior defensive linemen Griffin Welsch, Zach Lewin and Conner Zell, senior linebacker Mason Schwalbach and senior defensive back Jacob Brass and junior defensive back Jason Noe.

"We just have to trust everything we've been working on all summer," said Brennan Haigis, Highlands senior linebacker. "Nothing really changes when you're going against something new. You just have to keep doing what you've been doing that's been working for the team and just do everything 100 percent."

The Highlands offense could find itself at an advantage with a number of players with varsity experience. The Bluebirds averaged 143 yards rushing and 164 passing per game last year.

Highlands returns three starters on the offensive line in seniors Brock Huber, Max Dierig and Dylan Turner. The Bluebirds need to fill in the other two holes. Junior Jackson Roy moved over from the defensive line to help there.

"We're all big guys other than me. But we have more heart than physical attributes," Roy said. "That's going well. Hopefully, we'll become better in the future."

The Bluebirds do return a number of skill players in senior wide receivers Hunter Ahlfeld, Adam Weyer and Ethan Houze. Ahlfeld had 29 catches for 417 yards and six touchdowns. Junior Joe Buten is the leading returning rusher going for 537 yards on 83 carries and nine touchdowns for an average of about 6.5 yards per carry last year.

Senior Collin Hollingsworth is the leading candidate to start at quarterback after seeing limited action last year. Junior Jake Fahlbusch and sophomore Isaac Surrey saw action in the scrimmage against Ballard and Weyer has worked out at quarterback in the past. The team has heavily emphasized conditioning in the off-season to implement Umberg's offensive designs.

"I don't know in my opinion if we'll ever be as conditioned as I think we should be," Umberg said. "What people are going to see Friday is us going fast. We're going to get a lot of plays in, a lot of snaps. We're going to be running to the line. We're going to snap the ball in a hurry. It'll be good enough to beat a lot of people."

Scott outscored opponents about 26 to 21 last year. The Eagles are playing a 4-3 base defense with a Cover-2 scheme in the secondary. The Eagles had 12 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries last year, but most of the players that had those turnovers graduated. Senior linebacker Nigel Robinson led Scott with 103 tackles including 63 solo stops and seven sacks. Robinson also returned a fumble for a touchdown.

Scott does have a number of players listed as going both ways. Highlands tends to shy away from that, although some players saw limited snaps both ways last year. The Bluebirds have worn down teams that way int he past.

Highlands has never lost to the Eagles entering the 105th season in school history. The Bluebirds have won all 30 meetings and are five wins away from becoming the second team in the country to reach 900 wins all-time.

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