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Friday, September 17, 2021

PREVIEW: Highlands takes on Ryle in battle of 3-1 teams

Bluebirds Hope to Bounce Back Against Raiders

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands sophomore defensive back Ty Boler (2) battles McNicholas junior wide receiver Ben BoBo (6) on Friday.

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The Blue and White put together a dominating performance in the first home game two weeks ago and would like to put out another good showing this week for the home crowd at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.

Highlands welcomes the rival Ryle Raiders of Northern Kentucky's Class 6A, District 6 in a battle of 3-1 teams Friday at 7 p.m. The Bluebirds enter the game coming off a tough 27-21 loss to undefeated Cincinnati McNicholas on the road.

The Bluebirds may have lost to a good team. But they left McNicholas knowing they had three opportunities to take the lead in the second half, but could not capitalize on them. 

Highlands Offensive Coordinator Hayden Sphire said finishing drives comes down to better physicality and execution. The goal is get four yards per play, but five is great. The Bluebirds gained 382 yards on 67 plays against the Rockets averaging 5.7 yards per play.

"We can't start behind the chains," Sphire said. "We did a good job against McNich in the third quarter getting the four and five-yard runs, staying ahead of the chains so we stay in 3rd-and-1. 3rd-and-seven is a little bit more difficult. (It's about) getting positive yards every play and not falling behind the chains."

The Raiders are also a few plays away from being undefeated. The Raiders opened the season with a 24-21 loss in Union to 4-0 Lexington Catholic. But Ryle has limited the last three opponents to seven points each including a 14-7 win at county rival Cooper on Sept. 3. Highlands has outscored opponents, 137-90 for averages of just more than 34 to 22.5 points per game and Ryle has outscored opponents, 124-45 for averages of 31 to just above 11 points per game.

The Bluebirds have put up 633 yards rushing and 938 passing for averages of just more than 158 rushing and 234.5 passing out of their Spread attack. Junior quarterback Charlie Noon leads the way there completing 47-of-71 passes for 696 yards, nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. He also has 343 yards rushing on 42 carries for an average of more than eight yards per carry and two touchdowns.

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No other Highlands rusher has more than 77 yards on the season. But senior running back Griffin Richter could return this week.

"We hope to execute better than we have been," Richter said. "We just need to get in there, trust the offensive line and just put our heads down and go. We have to keep the legs going and drive forward."

Highlands has seen 12 different players rush the ball. The Bluebirds have shown the propensity to hand the ball off to wide receivers on jet sweeps among other plays.

"I think we found our run game a little bit against McNicholas and we have to continue that," Hayden Sphire said. "We have to continue to get better because it can open up the whole offense. We got a lot more production out of (juniors) Sam Robinson and Adam Dunn. They're going to have a lot of production."

Fourteen different Bluebirds have receptions this year. Senior wide receiver Jake Welch leads Highlands with 19 catches for 322 yards and two touchdowns. But senior wide receiver Clayton Lloyd has 10 catches for 120 yards and a team-high four touchdowns.

"They pick up on stuff really quick. On play calls, I try to make everything pretty easy," Hayden Sphire said. "I try to make sure play calls have a certain letter in them to help players know where to go and on what side the ball is going to. But I don't necessarily have to do that. I introduce something at the start of the day. By the end of the day, we're running it pretty well."

The 3-4 Highlands defense kept McNich off the scoreboard in the second half. The focus this week for the Bluebirds is cutting out the arm-tackling. That hurt the Bluebirds in the first half of the loss at McNicholas.

"It could be the difference between a win and a loss. If we get through the arm-tackling phase, it will be a lot easier on defense. It also takes a lot of pressure off our offense," said Jacob Hudson, Highlands senior defensive lineman. "You can be the only person on the side, have a bad angle and the opponents score. That is the game. Your could have a good angle and take them down."

Highlands Head Coach Bob Sphire said they key is tackle the legs as opposed to going up high where a strong running back can shove defenders off. The coaching staff has worked with the players on techniques such as the gator roll. He pointed out the team had a tackling station in a morning work-out Monday.

"I don't think they've been taught what I'm expecting to be taught. It's a transition," Bob Sphire said. "It's going to take a while to get there. It's just something that I believe in and it's also how much time you spend on it. It's that important so we'll do them at 6 a.m. if that's what we have to do. If we can't get them done at 6 a.m., maybe we'll come in at 5 a.m. and get them done. We're going to become a great tackling football team."

Highlands has allowed 592 yards rushing and 705 passing this year for averages of 148 rushing and just more than 176 passing this year. Senior linebacker Oliver Harris leads Highlands with 18 tackles this year and Dunn is second with 17.

The Bluebirds have two fumble recoveries and four interceptions returning half of each for touchdowns. Sophomore Carson Class and Dunn have one fumble recovery each. Class returned one 30 yards for a touchdown against Simon Kenton.

Robinson has two interceptions including one for a touchdown against Bowling Green. Junior Ryan DeBurger had a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown against Campbell County.

Ryle has put up 743 yards rushing and 662 passing for averages of just under 186 rushing and 165.5 passing. The Raiders are more balanced than they've been in recent years.


The Raiders run a Spread offense with two quarterbacks in junior Lukas Colemire and sophomore Logan Verax. Verax leads the Raiders passing completing 55-of-92 for 648 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Colemire is one of five Raiders with 105 or more yards rushing on the season with 114 yards rushing on 23 carries and three touchdowns for an average of just under five yards per carry. Verax is second on the team with 137 yards rushing on 33 carries and two touchdowns for an average of just more than four yards per carry.

Junior Jayce Harden leads the Raiders with 171 yards rushing on 28 carries and a touchdown for an average of just more than six yards per carry. Bob Sphire said Colemire and Gabe Savage are not afraid to take on tacklers. Savage has 105 yards rushing on 14 carries and a touchdown for an average of 7.5 yards per carry.

The Raiders have four players with 10 or more catches and four with 120 or more yards catching on the season. Junior wide receiver Kaden Gardner leads the way with 12 catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Harden has 11 catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns.

"They're by far the best team we will have played up to now," Bob Sphire said. "They have the best mixture of huge size up front. We've played a few teams that were diverse on offense like McNich. But they're going to make us defend every square inch of the field. But offensively and defensively, they're a real veteran football team."

Ryle has allowed 385 yards rushing and 498 passing for averages of just above 96 rushing and 124.5 passing per game. Savage at linebacker leads the Raiders with 43 tackles on the season with 1.5 tackles for a loss.

The Raiders have four fumble recoveries and four interceptions on the season. Senior defensive back Nathan Yowan has two interceptions to lead Ryle with one pick-six.

Highlands has won the last three meetings against the Raiders including a 23-14 win in Union last year. Highlands is 14-5 all-time against Ryle.

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