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Friday, October 8, 2021

PREVIEW: Highlands Hopes to Play More Loose at Boone County

Bluebirds, Rebels Seek First District Win of Season

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands junior defensive back Adam Dunn (26) celebrates after a defensive play while senior linebacker Eli LaFrange (64) watches in the game against Conner on Friday. LaFrange wore 64, instead of the usual 21 on Friday.

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This quote from former legendary Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball and later Northern Kentucky University Norse men's basketball Head Coach Ken Shields more than applies to the current state of the Highlands Bluebirds football team.

"With patience, the grass will become milk."

The Bluebirds (3-4 overall) saw some of that winning their first three games, especially when they were healthier. But during the recent four-game losing streak, that has not been the case as much.

The Bluebirds continue district play traveling to Florence on the new turf field to battle the Boone County Rebels on Friday at 7 p.m. Highlands Head Coach Bob Sphire said the Bluebirds played tight in the 21-13 home loss to the Conner Cougars to start Class 5A, District 5 action on Friday.

"I don't want to get all (psychologically babbling). But it's obvious to me that they're not turning it loose," Sphire said. "We have to look at how we game plan and look at some things to make them more comfortable so they can just fly around and play football. We need a confidence builder. We need something to click to where the kids say, 'Okay. Here we go. We're getting on a role here now.' There's no question about it."

Highlands has still outscored opponents, 184-166 on the season for averages of just more than 26 to just under 24 points per game. Boone County has been outscored 146-107 for averages of just under 21 to just more than 15.

The Bluebirds are still searching for consistency on offense. They've rushed for 829 yards and passed for 1,548 for averages of just more than 118 rushing and 221 passing.

"I go back and I look at that film. It's nothing that Conner did that stopped us," said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "It was all self-inflicted. If we make the right read here or there, we execute a block here or there or we make one guy miss here or there, we spring a big play. Fifteen yards becomes 50 yards. Those are the plays that we have to make that championship teams make. We're getting better. It's frustrating. But these guys can play with anybody. They've shown it. We just have to continue to execute."

Senior offensive lineman Kaleb Kissee said the offensive line needs to be more physical to help the offense move the ball better. He said the offensive line did that early in the season, but not lately.

"We (seniors) have just been getting the guys together," Kissee said. "We'll go over to someone's house, do a group text chat or something and be like, 'Guys. I watched film. I noticed we were doing this. We weren't going as hard as we needed to.' It's just things like that we're trying to get together and get all that fixed so we're not losing by a touchdown. Instead, we're winning by three touchdowns like we should be."

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They did mix things up out of the Spread offense against Conner putting sophomore Brody Benke in quarterback some in addition to some plays at wide receiver. Benke led Highlands on a long and sustained drive that included a 30-yard pass to junior quarterback/wide receiver Charlie Noon. But the Bluebirds had to put Noon back at quarterback after Conner figured out how to pressure Benke.

The good news is junior Sam Robinson gave Highlands some spark running the ball with 13 carries for 74 yards. Robinson is second for the Bluebirdes with 34 carries for 132 yards for an average of just under four yards per carry. Noon still leads the Bluebirds with 452 yards rushing on 78 carries and three touchdowns for an average of just under six yards per carry. Robinson also had 13 receptions for 148 yards.

"Sam did a good job for us Friday. But we have to have others step up and contribute," Hayden Sphire said. "Sam has to play defense some so he can't be our every down back. We're getting some guys back still off of injuries. Hopefully, we're more health come Friday and we can run guys in and out. We're going to do some things to get Charlie in space kind of like we did Friday. He's going to play quarterback. He'll line up in the back field and in the slot. We're going to manufacture ways not only to get him space, but to open up our entire offense."

Noon has completed 77-of-131 passes for 1,219 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. Benke has completed 19-of-31 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns.

Senior wide receivers Oliver Harris and Clayton Lloyd in addition to sophomore wide receivers such as Carson Class and Matteo Matteoli have tried to pick things up at wide receiver with senior speedy wide receiver Jake Welch out for the season. Lloyd has 13 catches for 223 yards and dive touchdowns with Class hauling in eight catches for 223 yards and four touchdowns. Matteoli has seven catches for 152 yards and a touchdown.

The Highlands 3-4 defense has allowed 1,296 yards rushing and 1,056 passing for averages of just more than 185 rushing and an even 264 passing. The Bluebirds have not allowed many big plays since the loss at Cincinnati (Ohio) McNicholas.

The Bluebirds did make some plays in the backfield against Conner. But there were times when they were in position defensively and gave up several yards after contact or allowed Conner quarterback Alex Castrucci and running back Alijah Thompson to scoot by them.

"One thing that we've been working on a lot this year is just going in with a full head of steam rather than breaking down and waiting for them to come to us and I think we did a little bit too much of that against Conner," said Adam Dunn, Highlands junior defensive back. "If we would have went at them with a full steam and heads down, we definitely would have made the tackles."

Highlands did recover a Conner fumble in the second half for the first Highlands takeaway since the win over Campbell County. Robinson pounced on it for his first fumble recovery of the year to go with his two interceptions. The Bluebirds own three fumble recoveries and four interceptions on the season.

Robinson also leads the Bluebirds with 34 tackles including four for a loss and two quarterback sacks. Junior defensive back Adam Dunn is second with 33 tackles including one tackle for a loss.

At 3-4, the Rebels have the most wins in a season since going 9-5 in 2011 and driving all the way to the Class 6A state semifinals losing 16-14 to eventual state runner-up Scott County. But the Rebels have dropped their first two district games to Conner (34-7) and Covington Catholic (39-6). 

Bryson Warner is in his third season as head coach of the Rebels. The Rebels have gone 0-10 in district play in the current alignment and missed the playoffs the last two years.

Boone County has rushed for 865 yards and passed for 589 for averages of between 123 and 124 rushing and just more than 84 passing using multiple formations offensively including some empty backfield, one-back, two-back and Power-I sets. Junior Jeremiah Williams leads the Rebels with 355 yards rushing on 71 carries and five touchdowns for an average of five yards per carry.

Junior quarterback Richard West is a dual threat. The Bluebirds have struggled against running quarterbacks this year. West leads Boone County completing 47-of-84 passes for 554 yards and five touchdowns and has rushed for 264 yards on 88 carries and two touchdowns for an average of three yards per carry. Sophomore Jashaun Pouncy leads the Rebels with 14 catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Bob Sphire also noted sophomore Jamarion Hocker has come in and played quarterback some.

"We have to get lined up and not get paralyzed by all that stuff, make our calls and go play," Bob Sphire said. "I know number seven (Williams) is a real physical, downhill runner. You have to game plan for all those combinations."

Teams have rushed for 1,289 yards on the 4-3 Boone County defense and passed for 432 yards for averages of just more than 184 yards rushing and 61 passing. Conner ran for 224 yards and passed for 87 against Boone County. Senior linebacker Samuel Brown leads Boone County with 36 tackles.

"Their coaching staff does a really good job of keeping them energized on the sidelines," Hayden Sphire said. "You can see them on film. They are bouncing around. They're there supporting the kids and I think the kids are really responding to that staff. I think you can see it on the field. They're really starting some things out."

The Rebels have recovered eight fumbles and intercepted six passes on the season. Senior DVion Davis leads Boone County with two fumble recoveries and senior defensive back Skyler Sears has picked off four passes.

Highlands has won all six meetings since the teams started playing on an annual basis in 2015. The Bluebirds are 40-3 all-time against the Rebels.

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