Highlands Bluebirds Director of Athletics Wes Caldwell said the plan is to have a new head football coach in place by Jan. 1. But Caldwell said that is not set in stone.
"We also want to make sure we have the best candidate that we can have," Caldwell said. "With a lot of schools still playing, there are some coaches that may not be able to apply until their seasons are over as well. If the right candidate comes along later in the process, I don't think we're going to have some hesitation on pushing it back some. Of course, we want to have it (done) as soon as possible."
A couple Highlands alums have led teams to the state semifinals of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association playoffs. Chris Wolfe, a 1990 Highlands alum who helped the Bluebirds to a 7-3 win over Paducah Tilghman in the 1989 Class 3A state championship game, has guided Louisville Male (7-1) to another Class 6A state semifinal appearance on Friday against Lexington Dunbar (7-2). Stephen Lickert, a 1997 Highlands alum who helped the Bluebirds to a 21-14 win over Hopkinsville in the 1996 Class 3A state championship game, has guided the Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds (8-2) to the Class 1A state semifinals at Paintsville (8-2) on Friday.
The new head coach and staff will have something huge to work with next season. The Bluebirds saw only a handful of players with varsity experience return from the 6-5 2019 season that ended with a 38-28 defeat at Conner in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs. That opened the door for a number of younger players to see some varsity action. Sophomores normally play on junior varsity for a year before competing for action under the Friday Night Lights.
The Bluebirds took their lumps in the 5-6 campaign. Seven-year Head Coach Brian Weinrich told the players last week he will not be returning in 2021.
"The experience that those guys gained is invaluable. You could just see the growth in them mentally more than anything as the year went on," Weinrich said. "Those lights were really bright early in the season. They got less bright for them as the year went on."
Highlands did win a playoff game this year, 27-16 at Conner. This comes after the Bluebirds lost in the first round twice in the previous four seasons. Seniors Jackson Roy, Mason South, Dominic Robinson and Jason Noe were among the few with varsity experience entering the season.
"The seniors did a great job of welcoming them and helping them. Everyone was doing what was best for the team," Weinrich said. "In a year like this, that made it a challenge for those guys. They really stepped up and had to learn on the run. It's exciting for those guys because they know what to expect now."
Sophomore Charlie Noon took the majority of the snaps at quarterback starting the second week of the season leading Highlands to a 23-14 win at Ryle, which finished 6-4 losing 41-36 to Dixie Heights in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs. Using a steady dose of the read-option, Noon led the Bluebirds rushing for 1,089 yards on 202 carries and 10 touchdowns for an average of more than five yards per carry.
The hope is to build off that in the next two years adding more balance. Noon recorded just under 48 percent (202-of-422) of the rushes for Highlands. The second-leading rusher for Highlands in South gained 334 yards on 58 carries and a touchdown for an average of just under six yards per carry.
Highlands rushed for 1,933 yards and passed for just 1,032 for averages of between 175 and 176 rushing and between 93 and 94 yards passing per game. Noon is the first Highlands sophomore to start at quarterback at any point in the season since Patrick Towles did in 2009. Noon completed 68-of-134 passes for 926 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
"We already have players getting ready for next year, which is going to be huge because we'll all build chemistry," Noon said. "We're going to get more athletic by doing that type of stuff."
Noon agreed the key to lifting Highlands back up to where it has been in the past is keeping the team together and every player buying into where the program is heading and how it plans to get there. In the past, one good class graduated and another one took the field.
"We all know what we need to work on, how to build each other up on and encourage others to do that," Noon said. "We're just going to keep working on that. If you look at all the talent we have, we just have to piece it all together, execute and we'll finally get back to the Highlands standard. We just have to get the freshmen on board with that. We'll all work together to win. No matter (who the new head coach) is, we're going to keep working. We're going to do our best to trust that coach and know the staff is going to lead us to the standard of Highlands football."
Noon quickly pointed out that sophomore wide receivers Brennan Kelsay and Ryan DeBurger made some plays this year and hope to make more of them in the next two seasons. Kelsay led Highlands with 14 catches this year for 142 yards and a touchdown. DeBurger moved up from the junior varsity late in the season and had three catches for 96 yards including key long ones in the win at Campbell County in the final game of the regular season and in the playoff win at Conner. Kelsay also punted for Highlands this year.
"I could obviously make better throws. But when the ball is in the air, we need those playmakers to actually go up and make the catch," Noon said. "When they're in open space, we need them to go and fight for those extra yards. That's going to be a huge part of getting to know each other on a higher level."
Junior wide receiver Jake Welch will return after leading the Bluebirds with 251 yards on 10 catches and two touchdowns. Welch helped Highlands spread the field this year, but he was not able to play in the playoff loss at CovCath. Junior wide receivers Oliver Harris and Clayton Lloyd also return next season. They both had eight catches for 110 and 87 yards respectively. Lloyd had one touchdown reception.
"We have to trust the process and do our roles whether your role would be to go out and block, run the right route, catch the short pass or catch the deep pass," Welch said. "We have to do our best at it. Once defenses can start keying on one thing, it makes their life a whole lot easier. When they have to worry about the pass, then our run game opens up. When they have to worry about the run, then the passing game opens up. We have to be good at both (so) we can capitalize on what the defense gives us."
The biggest thing in terms of the running game is junior Griffin Richter and sophomore Dawson Hosea hope to make an impact after not being able to play most of the season. Richter rushed for 47 yards on 22 carries in two games.
Hosea showed promise in the 23-14 win at Ryle in the second week of the season. Hosea had 13 carries for 59 yards and a touchdown, but could not play the rest of the season. The new coaching staff could install a number of looks in the offensive backfield with Noon, Richter and Dawson among others.
"If the running game improves, it would take a lot of pressure off Charlie because more teams will take their eyes off him," Hosea said. "Teams then can't just worry about him. They'll have to worry about Griffin and me, too. I think there will be a lot of trust between us and the quarterback. It will stop him from getting hit as much because he won't have to run the ball as much."
Everything offensively depends on how well the offensive line gels. The Bluebirds return the likes of junior Kaleb Kissee, Conner Barton and sophomore Adam Bowman there. Sophomore Wilson Bibb started his first varsity game there in the playoff game at Covington Catholic.
"We'll know exactly what to do next year," Bibb said. "It's easier to tell what they're doing now because we played (the Colonels) twice (this year). You just have to give 100 percent. If you mess up, you just keep going. You can't look back on the last play. We have to build a strong connection between each other. Everything from the hands and feet needs to be better."
On the defensive side of the ball, sophomore linebacker Sam Robinson started every game and recorded 41 tackles with 10 for a loss including four quarterback sacks. Sam Robinson also had a team-high two fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
Sophomore Davis Burleigh handled the kicking duties for the Bluebirds this year. Burleigh made 29-of-32 point-after-touchdown tries and a field goal.
Highlands normally starts off-season conditioning in January. The Bluebirds then have spring ball after basketball season ends.