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Friday, August 6, 2021

2021 Highlands Football Preview: Bob Sphire takes the reins

Bluebirds Seek Return to Consistent, Winning Habits

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands junior linebacker Sam Robinson (52) returns after recording 41 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries last year. He returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown against Cincinnati (Ohio) Moeller.

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Bob Sphire took the head coaching job for the Highlands Bluebirds football team in March.

When he touched down in Fort Thomas, Sphire began working on building relationships not only with the coaches and players, but with members of the community. That included reaching out to former Highlands Head Coach Dale Mueller.

14 N. Grand Ave. 

Sphire is entering his 33rd season as a head football coach in both Kentucky and Georgia and has seen how valuable relationships are to building successful programs. The Bluebirds went 250-36 during Mueller's 20 years as head coach between 1994 and 2013 with 11 state championships. Highlands won its 23rd state title in 2014, but has since gone 38-34 with just one double-digit winning season at 10-3 in 2018. Sphire and staff are hoping to lift the Bluebirds back to that level of dominance the community enjoyed for years.

"That is my respect for this program because this is the consummate community program," Sphire said. "This is like the pinnacle of the model of what high school football can be. To me, I have tremendous respect because it means that it's everyone in this community's program. It's not my program. It's not one person's program. I just want to be an ambassador for the program. I want to be the one who can carry one simple message for everybody. I'm just blessed to be a part of the program."

Sphire retained a number of assistants from the previous staff and brought in some new ones. Highlands does return more players with varsity experience unlike last season when the Bluebirds finished 5-6 in a Coronavirus 2019-shortened season. The Bluebirds also had a semblance of a normal off-season. But the biggest areas of focus have been on things they can control such as effort.

"We're trying to make up a lot of lost ground in the weight room," Sphire said. "That effects your effort whether you're getting pounded on or you're as strong as the other guy. Our effort is more than just on Friday Night. Our effort is how hard we're working in the weight room. How hard are we running the stadium stairs?"

Opponents outscored Highlands, 302-240 for an average of between 27 and 28 points to just under 22 points per game last year. The Bluebirds rushed for 1,933 and passed for 1,032 for averages of just below 176 rushing and 94 yards passing per game last season. Opponents rushed for 1,896 yards and passed for 1,118 for averages of just more than 172 rushing and 101 passing last year.

The Bluebirds will again run a Spread offense led by junior quarterback Charlie Noon at 6-feet-2-inches, 180 pounds. Noon made a lot of explosive plays with his feet last year rushing for 1,089 yards on 202 carries and 10 touchdowns for an average of just more than five yards per carry. Noon had just under 48 percent (202-of-422) of the team's rushes last year. The Bluebirds plan to use a lot of personnel and formations offensively.

Highlands hopes to build more balance around Noon. Noon completed 68-of-134 passes for 926 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions last year. Sophomores Brody Benke (6-4, 200) and Cam Bottom (6-1, 185) will back up Noon. Bottom backed up Benke on the freshman team last year. The staff has packages for all three quarterbacks in case of injuries.

New Highlands Offensive Coordinator Hayden Sphire, a former Murray State University quarterback, said all three have improved in the off-season and the staff is confident the team can win with all three. Benke will also see time at wide receiver and possibly strong safety because of his length and physicality. Hayden Sphire said the Bluebirds do not have a lot of wide receivers with those abilities on the team.

"He took the reigns in spring practice," Hayden Sphire said of Noon. "He gives us a ton of ability offensively. He's gotten so much better at throwing the ball."

Meet Ethan and the team.

The Bluebirds returns a number of skill position players starting at running back with senior Griffin Richter (5-10, 165) and junior Dawson Hosea (5-9, 180). Both battled injuries last year. But in the win at Ryle, Hosea showed a lot of promise rushing for 59 yards and a touchdown. Hosea could also see time at linebacker. Senior Dylan Honschell (5-8, 200), junior Max Schultz (5-7, 160) and freshman Devon James (5-8, 170) could also give the Bluebirds carries at running back.

The offensive line is led by seniors Kaleb Kissee (6-3, 255) and Conner Barton (6-1, 220). Juniors Adam Bowman (6-1, 265) and Wilson Bibb (6-2, 275) worked their way into the rotation as a result of injuries last year. All four could also see time on the defensive line.

Highlands may not always have the biggest linemen. But the Bluebirds had historically been successful using their speed against bigger linemen. Bob Sphire said opponents thought they were using smaller running backs on the offensive line at the EKU camp. The Bluebirds finished third out of 25 teams at the competition there.

The wide receivers hope to do a better job of completing catches this year. Bob Sphire noted the team dropped 12 passes at the Eastern Kentucky University camp. Senior Jake Welch (5-9, 155) led the team with 251 yards on 10 catches and two touchdowns last year. Junior Brennan Kelsay (5-8, 165) had the most catches with 14 for 142 yards and a touchdown. Senior Isaac Surrey (5-11, 165) also returns at wide receiver and could also see time at outside linebacker.

"We can never predict what a defensive coordinator is going to call. We can game plan and prepare throughout the week to the best of our abilities," Hayden Sphire said. "But when it comes to game time, we don't have a magic 8-ball that's going to tell us exactly what they're going to play. We're going to have to make contested catches. We're going to have to make physical, hard, three to four-yard runs where (defenses) have a good play, but we still get positive yardage. Big plays are going to be there and we're going to have to make them. But the biggest thing is the little plays throughout the game. It just frustrates the defense because they were there in position. But we still made the play."

Seniors Clayton Lloyd and Oliver Harris had eight receptions each last year. Harris had 110 yards receiving and Lloyd had 87 yards and a touchdown. The wide receivers did do a better job creating separation against solid defensive backs last year. That has been an issue in the past.

"It's something that we have to pay attention to the tiny details making sure we complete the catch into the tuck," Harris said. "Hopefully, our connection is a lot better this year with Charlie. We have all played together before."

Lloyd and Kelsay could also see time at defensive back and Harris could see time at linebacker. Another junior in Ryan DeBurger (5-10, 170) came on late last year. DeBurger could also see time at defensive back. Another senior in Paxton Porter (6-2, 190) gives Highlands options at wide receiver and outside linebacker. Junior Adam Dunn (5-11, 180) saw limited varsity action last year. He is listed at running back and defensive back. Sophomore Ryan Reynolds (6-1, 175) could give the Bluebirds options at wide receiver or linebacker.

Senior Aidan Halpin (6-1, 165) could give the Bluebirds an option at tight end, wide receiver or linebacker. Halpin said tight ends are usually bigger guys and can run through defenders to get open and not just around them.

"I think it adds a lot of variety to our offense," Halpin said. "I think if we execute to a T, it will help a lot because the defense will not know whether the tight end is blocking or going out on a route, especially on calls that look like a run, but are actually a pass. If you have an athletic tight end, he can split out to be a fourth receiver for our offense."

Highlands is switching back to a 3-4 defensive scheme this year. The Bluebirds switched from the 3-4 to the 3-5 before the 2017 season because that coaching staff felt opponents had caught up to the 3-4 in recent years. The Bluebirds recovered four fumbles and intercepted 13 passes defensively last year.

Junior Sam Robinson (5-10, 185) returns at linebacker after a phenomenal season last year. Robinson had 41 tackles, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown last year.

Seniors Henry King (5-10, 185) and Ivan Roller (5-11, 215) saw a lot of action on the defensive line last year. King is listed at outside linebacker and defensive end and Roller could also see action on the offensive line.

Senior Jacob Hudson (5-11, 190) and junior Atlas Lindeman (5-9, 175) are listed as defensive linemen only. Others who could see action on both lines are juniors Carson Schwalbach (6-1, 205), Connor Suddarth (5-11, 200), Tristan Bartuff (5-11, 200), Caleb Hollingsworth (5-11, 240), Trevaughn Woods (5-8, 180), sophomores Josh Studer (6-0, 210), Hollan Schweitzer (6-0, 240), Gabe Fassler (5-10, 165), Tenzing Lindeman (6-0, 175), Evan Johnson (6-1, 225), Will Todd (5-10, 195), Logan Jacono (5-11, 215), Carson Shelton (5-8, 180), Ethan Phillips (6-1, 260) and freshman Torin Bryant (6-0, 215). Junior Ryan Honschell (5-9, 200) could give Highlands options at running back and defensive end. Sophomore Johnny McComas (6-0, 156) could see time at wide receiver or defensive end.

Senior Eli LaFrange returns (6-2, 210) at linebacker. He could give the Bluebirds option there or at tight end along with sophomores Christian Stojkovic (5-11, 190) and Luke Schneider (6-2, 205). Several are listed at linebacker only in seniors Jackson Higgason (5-11, 180), Dawson Gauspohl (5-8, 150), sophomore Peyton Fossett (6-2, 190), Reed Hellman (5-10, 180), Leo Fenik (5-11, 196) and Jack Graham (6-2, 180).

"We have the ability to get into odd and even front defenses," Bob Sphire said. "We have the ability to get into multiple blitzes, pressures and stunts. We have exposed them to a bigger menu of multiple coverages to match the fronts and stunts that I thought we'd be able to at this point. They've really picked up on an understanding of those things overall. So we're not going to be relegated to a team that can only do one or two things. Because they understand those things, we have to work hard to be really good at those things."

Others who could contribute at outside linebacker are junior Noah Hodge (5-9, 165) and sophomores Brayden Coleman (5-11, 165), Dalton Roller (6-0, 175) and Connor Wallace (6-0, 180). Hodge could also see time at defensive back with Dalton Roller and Wallace competing for time at running back and wide receiver respectively. Coleman could also see time at strong safety.

There are some questions in the defensive secondary. Bob Sphire said the Bluebirds will be able to adjust on the fly to what opposing offenses throw at them out of their defensive schemes. Many young players will see action out of necessity.

One defensive back in junior Aiden Nevels (6-2, 175) finished state runner-up in the 110 hurdles in the Class AA meet in June. Others listed as defensive backs alone are senior George King (6-0, 175), junior Mason Rutkowski (6-0, 170), sophomores Griffin Taylor (5-7, 140) and Gershom Fennell (5-11, 146).

A number of players could contribute at running back or defensive back. They are sophomores Ty Boler (5-10, 170), Nate Welch (5-9, 160) and Kamuri Rainey (5-7, 120). Others who could contribute at wide receiver or defensive back are junior Jack Hendrix (5-10, 170), sophomores Matteo Matteoli (6-0, 170), Carson Class (6-1, 171), Lincoln Hicks (5-9, 165), Davis Hinegardner and Zach Bracken (6-1, 175).

Junior Davis Burleigh (6-0, 175) returns as place kicker. Kelsay punted last season and the team has several players looking to contribute at long snapper in 

Highlands will have even more players with varsity experience entering next season. Bob Sphire is more worried about Highlands this year. He'll learn the opponents more down the road as the team moves forward.

The Bluebirds face Louisville Male in a scrimmage Aug. 6. It starts at 6 p.m.

The regular season begins Aug. 21 in Rafferty's Bowl at Western Kentucky University. Highlands takes on the defending Class 5A state champion Bowling Green Purples at 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

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