By G. Michael Graham
Every high school football team team may have things that need addressed entering a season but the word mystery based on a number of unknowns including those associated with Coronavirus 2019 that pushed the start of the season back to Sept. 11 could be typed in all capitals for the Highlands Bluebirds football team this season.
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The Bluebirds hope a lot of those mysteries help propel the team back toward the top of Class 5A where they've been in their glorious past.
Highlands finished 6-5 last season losing 38-28 at the Conner Cougars in the first round of the playoffs. That marked the second first-round loss in four years for the Bluebirds following a 10-3 season in 2018 that saw Highlands go back to the region finals for the first time since 2015.
The Bluebirds own 23 state championships in school history, which is still second-most in Kentucky behind Louisville Trinity's 26. But since the last one in 2014, Highlands has gone 33-28 and last made the state semifinals in 2015. That 10-win season in 2018 is the lone double-digit win season since then as well.
Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich said the coaches and players have made the most of the situation. In the off-season, the team spent a lot more time in meetings, dealing with the mental aspects of the game including going over plays and why teams run them. He extended a lot of praise to coaches, administrators and the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Board of Control and staff for making the season happen. He said coaches across Kentucky have gone out of their way to help each other protect the players from Coronavirus 2019.
"The guys have been resilient since the first day of our new normal," Weinrich said. "They've responded with everything that we've thrown at them whether it was virtual position meetings. It was virtual workouts. It was watching film virtually. Everything we've asked of them, they've done and they've done beyond what we expected of them. They continue to focus at getting better at everything. It's been a really rewarding experience."
Highlands graduated 31 seniors from last season. They are linebackers Brycen Huddleston, Brennan Haigis, Mason Schwalbach, Nelson Bibb, Wes Bowling, defensive backs Sawyer Depp, Jacob Brass, Max Guetle, Noah LaMothe, John Kohler, running back Tyler Brune, offensive linemen Brock Huber, Max Dierig, Jackson Curry, Jackson Bibb, Dylan Turner, kicker Nick Fischer, defensive linemen Brennan White, Zach Lewin, Sylvan Frazier, Griffin Welsch, Conner Zell, Tyler Phillipps, quarterback Collin Hollingsworth, wide receivers Hunter Ahlfeld, Ethan Houze, Jack Delagrange, Connor Noon, Adam Weyer, Ryan Garvey and Joey Deschler.
Some of those players took their talents to the next level. Huddleston is playing linebacker at Eastern Michigan and Ahlfeld is playing at Morehead State. Hollingsworth signed to play baseball at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Brass is playing at Georgetown College (Kentucky).
Huddleston led Highlands recording 104 tackles including 65 solo to go with 14 for a loss and four sacks. Brass led the Bluebirds with seven interceptions. Ahlfeld led the Bluebirds with 27 catches for 348 yards and seven touchdowns. Hollingsworth completed 109-of-211 passes for 1,340 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Highlands does not plan to make any changes with the base schemes. The Bluebirds run a Spread offense and 3-5 defense. The Bluebirds outscored opponents, 280-159 for averages of between 25 and 26 points to between 14 and 15 points per game. Highlands returns all the assistant coaches except Billy Huddleston from last year. Continuity often allows players to step in and contribute quickly. Weinrich pointed out in the position meetings that the terminology was not new to the players.
Highlands shut out three teams last year thanks to consistent play from the defense until the playoff loss when Conner put up 364 yards of total offense. But two opponents shut out the Bluebirds mostly because of inconsistencies on the offense. The Highlands defense allowed 1,368 yards rushing and 1,443 passing for averages of just more than 124 and 131 respectively.
Things start up front with the defensive line. Highlands Defensive Line Coach Mark Dill said the first goal is to stop the run defensively then putting pressure on the quarterback on passing plays. The Bluebirds did a wonderful job rotating to the ball last season.
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"I always tell my guys, 'Effort is a choice," Dill said. "You can choose to be just as relentless as a guy like Zach Lewin or Conner Zell by getting out and doing it in practice every day. Everyone gets tired during football. But they go whenever they have the few opportunities to get out on the football field and play. It changes everything when you have 11 guys in pursuit of the ball when there appears to be an open, it suddenly closes with somebody you didn't expect to be there. If the guys throws the ball 50 yards down the field, go tackle that receiver like you're the only one there. That's the type of relentless effort we expect them to have."
Dill pointed out the defensive linemen do not want to see the defensive backs stay on an island with wide receivers for a long time. Conversely, solid coverage helps teams make sacks. Listed as defensive linemen alone are seniors Conner Shelton, Vance Moore, juniors Rayven Hogle, Ivan Roller, Henry King, Dylan Honchell, sophomores Ryan Honchell, Atlas Lindeman, Will Tally and TreVaughn Woods.
"We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of things," Weinrich said. "We have to grow up in a hurry and get better in a hurry. We pride ourselves on trying to play a lot of guys. It helps us win games and it also helps our guys. When they come out, they want to play. We feel like we're going to play a lot of guys again this year."
Highlands used some players both ways last season and could do the same on both lines this year. Senior Jackson Roy started on the offensive line last year, but could see time on the defensive line as well. Also battling for time on both lines are seniors Brenden Nickelman and Braden Baioni.
Highlands senior Mason South started at linebacker last year and could see action at running back. Sophomore Dawson Hosea could also see action at both spots. Others listed at linebacker are senior Jack Cavanagh, juniors Eli LaFrange, Logan Henry, Mason Welch, and sophomores Noah Hodge and Sam Robinson.
Senior Jason Noe has started the past two years. He could play defensive back or wide receiver. Others who could see action at both spots are seniors Patrick Clukey, Dominic Robinson, Tom Kempf, junior Isaac Surrey, Jacob Welch, sophomores Ryan DeBurger, Adam Dunn, Brennan Kelsay and Seth Valliere. Junior Will Hartman played some at defensive back last year. He could also see action at running back.
Senior Bryson Cody returns to play safety this year after not playing last year. Cody helped the Highlands boys basketball team to a district championship last winter. Other defensive back candidates are seniors Luke Koenig, Jacob Buecker, Daniel Buchannan, juniors George King, sophomore James Bellau, Aiden Nevals and Max Rutkowski.
"Even though our defense is kind of young, we all know what our roles are and what to do. We can make a big impact on this year," Cody said. "Over the years, you learn more about football the more you play. When you're with the older guys with experience, it helps you out. It gets you to understand what playing as a team really means."
The Highlands offense knows it needs to sustain drives better for the Bluebirds have success of old. The Bluebirds put up 1,387 yards rushing and 1,441 passing for averages of just more than 126 rushing and exactly 131 passing.
At times, Highlands ran the ball on first and second down. But something such as missed block resulted in negative yardage putting the Bluebirds in 3rd-and-long. Teams then brought blitzes because Highlands could not connect on passes resulting in sacks or incomplete passes. The inconsistent passing game led to teams loading up the box to stop the run.
Highlands junior Griffin Richter returns after leading the Bluebirds with 291 yards rushing on 63 carries for an average of between four and five yards per carry and a touchdown. Senior Joe Buten is not able to play this year because of injuries. Other candidates at the running back spot are junior Jacob Hudson and sophomore Max Shultz.
Senior Jake Fahlbusch saw limited time at quarterback last year completing 14-of-23 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. He started the season-opening win at Scott.
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But for now, Fahlbusch will rotate at quarterback with sophomore Charlie Noon. Some may frown at the thought of that. But the team with the most wins in the country in the Valdosta (Georgia) Wildcats won a state championship in Georgia in 2016 doing that.
"They've been each other's biggest supporter. They're really each other's coach," Weinrich said. "They're doing a great job of being there. We've really explained to them that doing a rep is one thing. But sitting back and watching it because you know what he should be seeing and you can see without worrying if the guys is coming at you so you can get it from a different perspective."
Welch is the leading returning wide receiver from last year with five catches for 93 yards and three touchdowns. Clukey had four catches for 43 yards. Weinrich said the team hopes the quarterbacks and wide receivers develop chemistry in practice. Others listed at wide receiver are senior Chase Hoffman, juniors Aidan Halpin, Oliver Harris, Clayton Lloyd, Paxton Porter and sophomore Jack Hendrix.
"Our offense this year changed a little bit. The timing was kind of hard to get down at first," Clukey said. "Now, I think we have the grasp of it and we'll be ready to go. I think this is the most athletic receiving corps we've had in a while. I think all the guys are pretty on the same page."
One other starter returns on the offensive line in junior Kaleb Kissee. Other listed offensive linemen are seniors Chase Gordon, Charlie Moore, Jake Arthur, Trevor Harmes, junior Nathaniel Webster, Conner Barton, sophomores Tristan Bartruff, Wilson Bibb, Adam Bowman, Elijah Hale, Caleb Hollingsworth, Carson Schwalbach and Connor Suddath.
Haigis handled the place kicking last year. Sophomore Davis Burleigh is listed as a kicker.
Highlands opens up the season against Simon Kenton at home in what will be 20 percent capacity at Cecil Memorial Stadium. The Pioneers finished 8-5 last year winning Class 6A, District 6 and driving to the third round of the playoffs before losing 47-8 at Lexington Tates Creek.
Highlands has beaten Simon Kenton the last two years including a 28-7 win in Independence last year. The Bluebirds led 14-7 in the fourth quarter. Simon Kenton freshman quarterback Chase Crone led the Pioneers down the field before Brass picked off a Crone pass and returned it to the Simon Kenton 10 leading to a Brune touchdown. The Bluebirds added another touchdown in that quarter to pull away.
Weinrich said he spoke to Simon Kenton Veteran Head Coach Jeff Marksberry earlier in the week. Weinrich said Marksberry said Crone looks like a fifth-year senior at quarterback.
"When we started watching film on Simon Kenton last year if someone would have told me he's a freshman, I wouldn't have believed him," Weinrich said. "For a freshman to come in like he did last year, it was really impressive how he handled the situation. Everything begins and ends with him."
Simon Kenton runs a Spread offense and 3-4 base defense. The Pioneers have spread the field some years throwing the ball all over the field, but have run some read-option in recent years.
Highlands is 27-4 all-time against the Pioneers. The teams did not play between 1999 and 2014. But Simon Kenton won three in a row when the series resumed in 2015.