|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands nose tackle Tyler Robinson makes a tackle against Harrison County last year. He had eight tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks last year.|
The size might not always be there. But the Highlands Bluebirds football team tries to develop its quickness on defense to negate the size advantages opponents may have in its 3-4 formation.
Last year, Highlands allowed averages of 20.8 points per game, 153.9 yards rushing and 161.7 passing. The Bluebirds also registered shut-outs on the road against Covington Holmes and Warren Central. Highlands Defensive Coordinator Shelby Jones said the first priority as a defense is keeping teams out of the end zone.
"We play every single play like that's the only play. I think a lot of times you can let one play snowball into the next play," Jones said. "Teams are going to gain yards. They might throw a pass and get 10 yards. Then on the next play, they get 20 yards because you're mad you didn't do something right."
The biggest thing Highlands likes to win is field position. The Bluebirds lost that battle early in the games they fell behind in losses to Miami (Fla.) Christopher Columbus and Cincinnati Elder in addition to the 4A state championship game against Owensboro.
"When you play an option team, you also have to take into consideration they have to go 80 yards," Jones said. "It's a lot more difficult than when they have to go 30 yards. I'll harp on field position all the time. If you make them play every single play going 80 or 90 yards, chances are you're going to make something happen or they're going to make a mistake. So the more plays they have to play, the better off you are really."
Highlands made a major halftime adjustment against Owensboro and shut out the Red Devil offense in the second half. That allowed the Bluebirds to rally from down 42-21 to win 49-42. Highlands put an extra linebacker inside to guard against Red Devil dives. That let an outside linebacker take the pitch person on options. Highlands will face some Wing-T teams this fall such as Scott County.
"The biggest thing is to read your keys and don't look in the backfield," said Joe Dressman, Highlands senior linebacker. "If you look in the backfield, you're going to get taken out of the play every time. If you read your guard, he takes you right to the play. If our defensive line closes the gaps, we're usually pretty solid against the run."
Dressman and seniors Ben Ziegler, Jared Dougherty, Luke Lindeman and Conner Welsch return at linebacker hoping to fill in for the graduated Rocco Pangallo, Brady Murray, Ben Ellison, Jacob Noe and Patrick Schoepf. Ziegler finished second on the team with two fumble recoveries last year. Juniors Luke Meyer, Luke Ross and Trent Webster are also battling for time there.
Senior Tyler Robinson leads the defense at nose tackle. He had eight tackles for a loss and 4.5 quarterback sacks last year. Junior Drew Bravard also comes back as Highlands looks for players to fill in for the graduated John Abner, D.J. Mills and Daniel Kremer. Also hoping to contribute on the defensive line are seniors Jordan Johnson, Dalton Mallery, Caleb Mulliken, Tyler Sexton and juniors Jacob Johnson, Jamir Logan and Connor Myers.
"Our defensive ends are definitely fast this year," Bravard said. "It's not so much our choice in what we try to do on a pass or run play. (The coaches) call what we're doing. Most of the time, we have to do our job. If we have that keep, we keep that gap. But sometimes, we have certain blitzes where we can choose whether it's a run or pass play."
The defensive backs know they will need to cover well one-on-one because the Bluebirds will see some spread teams this year. Junior Austin Beal leads the way there after recording two interceptions last year. His 70-yard interception return against Owensboro in the state championship game tied the game up at 42 in the fourth quarter.
Taylor Perez also returns in the defensive backfield. Seniors Hank Johnson Jr., Austin Mayhew, Cody Stamper and juniors John Buchanan, Carter Burke, Ben Grothaus, Cameron Hayes, Chris Kidney, Kyle Rust, Michael Siska and Sam Taylor hope to contribute there. The Bluebirds graduated James Hinkle, Grayson Heck, Andrew Abner and Kyle Martin from the secondary last year.
"We're making sure we do what we're taught and what we've learned," Perez said. "We have to stack our receivers and just play. We don't think too much. We have to play fast and play hard. If you know who you're guarding, you have to make sure you give yourself enough cushion. We have to make sure we're lined up right. I don't see that as a problem this year."
Highlands always has players ready to go thanks to its depth. The Bluebirds have 96 seniors, juniors and sophomores on the roster. It helps that some have had fathers and grandfathers who have won state championships at Highlands as well.
"We try to coach each guy all the time. I think it's very easy to get away from your sophomores and making sure they're doing things correct," Jones said. "We hope to help everyone get better. That's why we want to play 10 JV games. The sophomores can get a feel for what it's like. When they're asked to step in and play that position or for the next guy, they're ready to go. We have guys ready to step in and make big plays."
Highlands should be in good hands on special teams with Dougherty returning at kicker. He made 72-of-75 extra-point tries last year and three field goals. He also had 17 punts for an average of 32.2 per kick.
The Bluebirds scrimmage Cincinnati St. Xavier on Aug. 14 at 7 p.m. They open the season on Aug. 21 at Cooper at 7:30 p.m.