|PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior Henry King (33) is one of 18 on the team this season. He played a good bit on the defensive line last year. He hopes to contribute at defensive end or outside linebacker this year.|
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Solid senior leadership is as paramount to the success of teams as anything.
But it become even more important during the transition from one coaching staff to another. New Highlands Bluebirds football Head Coach Bob Sphire welcomes 18 to the table this year. It's not as huge of a senior class as the Bluebirds have had in the past. But a number of them bring solid varsity experience.
"The seniors have been awesome. They have really worked to absorb everything," Sphire said. "We have actually exposed them to a pretty good portion of the menu of our schemes to the point to where I don't know that they're great at any one aspect of them. But they're starting to understand an overall big picture. Now it's time for us to start dialing back a little bit and focus on some of the details. These kids are really football-smart."
Highlands had 21 seniors on last year's team that finished 5-6 during a Coronavirus 2019 pandemic-shortened season. The Bluebirds lost 38-21 at Covington Catholic in the second round of the Class 5A state playoffs. But the team fought to the end even in games where opponents overmatched them. Those 21 seniors are offensive linemen Chase Gordon, Trevor Harms, Jake Arthur, defensive linemen Jackson Roy, Braden Baioni, Conner Shelton, Brendan Nickelman, Charlie Moore, Vance Moore, defensive backs Thomas Kempf, Bryson Cody, Daniel Buchanan, Luke Koenig, Jacob Buecker, running back/defensive back Dominic Robinson, wide receiver Chase Hoffmann, wide receiver/defensive back Jason Noe, Patrick Clukey, linebacker Jack Cavanaugh, quarterback Jake Fahlbusch and running back/linebacker Mason South.
Sphire said in the spring the team does not have the numbers to two-platoon like the Bluebirds have done in the past. Therefore, a number of players could see action at two positions. Senior Ivan Roller mostly played on the defensive line. But he could play on the offensive line as well. Senior Jacob Hudson could also help on the defensive line.
"I just think having kids be able to play both ways helps you more," Roller said. "If you're mainly a defensive guy, I almost feel it helps you to know what the offensive technique and how you can beat it. It also helps build depth in case that guy goes out."
Senior Kaleb Kissee played right tackle as a sophomore before moving to left tackle last year. Kissee expects to return to left tackle and possibly play some defensive end. Senior Conner Barton also played on the offensive line last year and could also see time at defensive line. Highlands hopes to be the more physical team consistently like it has been in the past. Kissee said the most physical teams win on Friday Nights.
"Everyone's been real thrilled," Kissee said. "They've all done a good job of absorbing the new information and just showing up every day and getting after it. After practice, we go watch film and the guys really lock in. They see what they did wrong and they fix it the next day."
Seniors Eli LaFrange, Dawson Gauspohl and Mason Welsch lead the way at linebacker in the Highlands 3-4 defensive scheme. LaFrange could also see time at tight end. Senior Jackson Higgason also hopes to contribute there. Senior Henry King is hoping to contribute at outside linebacker or defensive end.
The secondary will have some new looks with George King and Clayton Lloyd as the only seniors listed at defensive back. Will Hartman led Highlands with 82 tackles last year. But he's decided not to return for his senior year.
A number of senior wide receivers return led by Jake Welch. Welch led Highlands with 251 yards on 10 catches and two touchdowns. The Bluebirds will run a Spread offense again this year.
Highlands only had 1,032 yards passing last year. But the Bluebirds hope to pick things up there with the return of seniors Isaac Surrey, Paxton Porter, Lloyd and Oliver Harris. Surrey, Porter and Harris could also see time at linebacker. Senior Aidan Halpin hopes to give the Bluebirds new looks at tight end and could also contribute as a linebacker.
Senior Griffin Richter hopes to bounce back from an injury-riddled junior year at running back. Senior Dylan Honchell could also contribute at running back or line up in the slot at wide receiver.
Highlands has a scrimmage on Friday at David Cecil Memorial Stadium against Louisville Male. Game time is 7 p.m.
The Bluebirds open the season Aug. 21 against the defending Class 5A champion Bowling Green Purples at Western Kentucky University. Game time is 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.