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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Highlands Looks to Rebound Against Cooper

Bluebirds Seek to Lock Up Home Playoff Game

Highlands sophomore quarterback Charlie Noon looks for running room against Covington Catholic on Friday. (Img: Ed Harber)

By G. Michael Graham

Senior defensive back/wide receiver Dominic Robinson said a huge focus for the Blue and White this week is confidence.

Things really seemed to be coming together for the Highlands Bluebirds football team (3-3 overall) to start Class 5A, District 5 in consecutive shut-out wins at the Conner Cougars (36-0) and in Fort Thomas against the Boone Rebels (43-0). But in the battle for sole possession of first place in the district at undefeated Covington Catholic (5-0) on Friday, Highlands took some steps back in a 42-0 defeat.

"It was almost like everyone wasn't really themselves against CovCath," Robinson said. "Everyone played (hard). But (it was) like everyone was scared. We're definitely working on playing like we know we can play and definitely not how we played against CovCath. We're definitely improving on everyone doing his job, remembering his responsibilities and just outright outperforming people."

The Highlands junior varsity team (2-3) relieved some of the pain with a 24-21 overtime win over Covington Catholic on Saturday. But the next task for the varsity is securing a home playoff game for the first round of the playoffs Nov. 13 with a win over The Cooper Jaguars (2-4) this Friday at 7 p.m. at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.

The loss at Covington Catholic dropped the Bluebirds to 2-1 in District 5 play. The only thing that has been decided in the district is Boone County will be left out for the second year in a row after the Jaguars beat the Rebels, 28-8 on Friday finishing 0-4 in district play. Cooper is 1-2 in district play and playing for the best position possible.

Cooper started the season 0-3 before pulling off a tight 27-26 win over George Rogers Clark. The Jaguars then lost 27-20 at home against Conner before beating Boone County. Opponents have outscored the Jaguars, 165-97.

"Our goal every year is to be playing our best football toward the end of the season," said Randy Borchers, Cooper Head Coach. "I think early on, we were in the same position as most teams where we were trying to see what we were going to be able to do effectively offensively and defensively. We were put in a tough position right before the season started losing our starting quarterback and having to move our best athlete to the quarterback position. This definitely changed our offense and took us a while to adjust to those changes."

Drew Warth started as a sophomore at quarterback last year for the Jaguars and completed 103-of-245 passes for 1,346 yards, nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Warth completed 20-of-38 passes for 165 yards and three interceptions in the 14-7 Highlands win in Union last year. It took a stop on fourth down late in the game inside the Highlands 10 last year for the Bluebirds to preserve that win.

That allowed the Cooper staff to move senior Jeremiah Lee to other spots on the field including slot positions after Lee played quarterback as a sophomore in 2018. Lee led the Jaguars in rushing and passing that year. He rushed for 724 yards on 172 carries and 11 touchdowns averaging just more than four yards per touch and completed 52-of-118 passes for 1,011 yards, 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. In 2019, Lee led the Jaguars with 34 catches for 416 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 287 yards on 66 carries and seven touchdowns for an average of just more than four yards per carry.

Highlands faced Cooper with Lee at quarterback his sophomore year in 2018 opening the season with a 36-7 win. The Bluebirds held Lee to 25 yards rushing on 18 carries and 6-of-17 passes for 109 yards, two interceptions and a touchdown.

The challenge for the Highlands 3-5 defense will again be to contain Lee. Cooper started the season playing Lee and sophomore Eli White at quarterback. But Borchers said the staff settled with Lee and built the offense that shows multiple looks around him. 

Lee again leads the Jaguars with 605 yards rushing on 93 carries and six touchdowns for an average of around 6.5 yards per carry. That is just under 58 percent of the rushing yards and just under 53 percent of the attempts for the Cooper offense.

"He's obviously a very dynamic player," Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich said of Lee. "Everything they have goes through him. He's one of the more explosive players that we've gone against."

Cooper has rushed for 1049 yards and passed for 483 for averages of just under 175 rushing and between 80 and 81 passing. Lee has completed 25-of-54 passes for 430 yards, four interceptions and four touchdowns. His top target has been senior wide receiver Xavier Smith with 18 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns.

The Jaguars have two other players that have rushed for more than 100 yards. Senior running back Eric Wright has 32 carries for 257 yards and three touchdowns for an average of just more than eight yards per touch and senior Chester Hale has 101 yards on nine carries for an average of just more than 11 yards per carry. Weinrich said Wright has risen in the last few weeks. Wright had a long touchdown run against Boone County.

The Highlands defense has allowed 997 yards rushing and 654 yards passing on the season for averages of just more than 166 rushing and exactly 109 passing. Highlands senior linebacker Jack Cavanaugh leads the Bluebirds with 26 tackles with three tackles for a loss and two quarterback sacks. Sophomore linebacker Sam Robinson has eight tackles for a loss including two sacks and senior defensive lineman Vance Moore has six tackles for a loss and three sacks.

The Bluebirds have nine interceptions this season and three fumble recoveries. Sam Robinson has two fumble recoveries and an interception. Dominic Robinson and senior defensive back Jason Noe have two interceptions each.

"The thing that impresses me most with Highlands Football is how hard their players play," Borchers said. "They are also very athletic and quick, but I love how they fly around defensively and get 8-9 guys to the ball on every play.  They are always very sound defensively and will create chaos if you don’t communicate up front.  They do a great job of filling downhill and their safeties fill hard and fast and will remind you quickly that you better account for them in your run game." 

When defending passing routes, Highlands is big on not letting wide receivers or tight ends run behind them. The Bluebirds try to jump passing routes. But when jumping a sideline route, wide receivers can use double moves to run behind the defense for wide-open touchdowns. Highlands defensive backs coach Ryan Leopold said Cooper has been throwing the ball 15 to 20 times a game the last few weeks including vertical routes.

"We preach to the guys to make sure that when they're driving up on a route that they drive to the outside shoulder so that when the guy turns upfield, he's turning out also like taking a charge in basketball," Leopold said. "So there's a natural collision there as he turns up. Then we're making that collision so that the guy gets knocked off his route then the timing gets taken away from the quarterback and the receiver."

The Highlands Spread offense had chances to score against CovCath. But negative to minimal gains on first down inside the CovCath 30 put the Bluebirds in 3rd-and-long situations and the Bluebirds did not convert on any of the five fourth-down tries. The Bluebirds did drive to the CovCath 8 with 14 seconds left, but could not run another play.

"We have to get better in practice and finish drives," Weinrich said. "Every week, we have to get better at situational football. That's just experience in games and learning from them. Those situations are hard to replicate. We've been through a lot of them on Fridays now. We're learning from them as we go."

The Bluebirds have rushed for 953 yards and passed for 738 for averages of just under 159 rushing and exactly 123 passing. Highlands sophomore quarterback Charlie Noon continues to lead the Bluebirds in both with 532 yards rushing on 106 carries and five touchdowns for an average of just more than five yards per carry. Noon has also completed 48-of-82 passes for 644 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.

"Highlands is going to be very happy with their QB over the next two and a half years," Borchers said. "He is already a game changer and will only get better.  Not only can he beat you throwing the ball he is an even better runner that is very elusive and is tough to keep in the pocket.  The receivers run great routes and do a tremendous job of finding the open window to settle down.  The coaching staff has done a great job of adapting their offense to their players and they do a great job of keeping the defense off-balance."

Junior running back Griffin Richter and sophomore running back Dawson Hosea have not been able to play the last couple weeks for Highlands. They've shown promise like a lot of people when the offensive line blocks well.

"We're just trying to get after it making sure we know what we're doing," said Charlie Moore, Highlands senior offensive and defensive lineman. "We want to play with authority and get the guy in front of us. It's extremely vital to be playing hard until the whistle blows."

Sophomore wide receiver Brennan Kelsay has the most catches with 13 for 138 yards and a touchdown. Junior wide receiver Jake Welch has the most receiving yards for the Bluebirds with 176 on six catches and a touchdown.

Cooper has allowed 1,273 yards rushing and 625 passing for averages of just more than 212 rushing and 104 passing in its 4-2-5 defense. Sophomore linebacker Jake Harmeyer leads the Jaguars with 55 tackles including two for a loss. Senior linebacker Chester Hale has six tackles for a lock with one quarterback sack. The Jaguars have just two fumble recoveries on the season and two interceptions.

"I think with the way the offseason went this year we did not come into the season nearly as sound defensively as we usually do," Borchers said. "We were giving up way to many big plays and easy scores due to poor tackling, bad angles and not proper fits. These are all areas that we still need improvement in but we have seen progress over the last couple of weeks." 

Highlands is 4-1 against the Jaguars in school history. The Bluebirds have won four in a row in the series.

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