While the state championship games started at Kroger Field in Lexington on Friday, the Highlands Bluebirds football staff opened the weight room for a couple hours after school.
The staff and players know everyone has to get better during each workout. But that will especially be the case for rising varsity players on the offensive line. The Bluebirds will graduate six offensive linemen this spring including four starters in Josh Homer, Michael Dunn, Justin Merkle, Sam Sparks, Keaton Huddleston and Evan Owens.
Highlands Offensive Coordinator Zach Deaton has never doubted the abilities of Highlands offensive line coaches Wayne Hall and Scott Turner. They'll be working with one returning starter in the off-season in junior Trent Johnson, who also saw spot action on the defensive line with Dunn. Highlands finished 6-6 this past year losing 35-34 at South Oldham in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs.
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"Coach Hall and Coach Turner are amazing at what they do," Deaton said. "They seem to always be able to come up with answers for us on the offense in being able to solidify things up front."
Deaton said the Bluebirds entered the 2017 campaign with similar questions with Dunn and Johnson being the only returning starters on the offensive line. The offensive line struggled to open things up for the running backs outside the win at Cooper in the first couple games before finding its identity.
Many people think just being big and physical is enough to be a solid offensive lineman. But Johnson and the Bluebirds have often blocked well using something that goes above and beyond that.
"I would take technique over being big and physical every day," Johnson said. "If you have the right positioning, you're going to win every time. It doesn't matter how strong or big you are. Being big obviously helps. But footwork is so important. If you're footwork is good, you can do more damage I would say."
Highlands will bring up offensive linemen who played for the 3-5 junior varsity squad and possibly the 8-1 freshman team. Junior Will Salmon started the year as an offensive lineman, but had to play on the defensive line late in the season filling in for some injured teammates. Other candidates to fill the open spots are junior Will Gastright along with sophomores Jackson Curry, Jackson Bibb, Brock Huber and Dylan Turner.
"Everyone is responsible for one another," Huber said. "If someone is doing something they shouldn't be doing, everyone steps up and directs them how we should all be going about it."
Highlands has moved players from one side of the ball to the other to fill in holes. In 2014, Bo Hebel and Matt Gall switched to the offensive line after playing on the defensive line in 2013.
The Bluebirds do return several key skill position players from an offense that averaged just more than 143 yards rushing and just more than 213 passing. Highlands outscored opponents just 362-359 this past year.
Junior Grady Cramer saw action in all 12 games. He caught 20 passes for 264 yards and a touchdown good for third on the team in receptions.
Throughout the regular season, Cramer played quarterback in spot situations. He ran the offense out of the Bluebirds' Muddle Huddle look on two-point conversions. Cramer also came in and threw a touchdown pass to Nick Veneman in the Red Zone against Dixie Heights.
The Bluebirds wound up needing his services at quarterback in the playoffs after senior starter Carl Schoellman could not play. Cramer completed 40-of-66 passes for 519 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions.
"One of the nicest things about having a quarterback like Grady is we oftentimes use him as another blocker because he is a big run threat," Deaton said. "Hopefully, he and some of the other running backs can take a little bit of pressure off the offensive line by being able to help with their potential in a zone offense of being a threat to run the ball at all times."
The leading returning rusher for the Bluebirds in Cooper Schwalbach will also return. Schwalbach rushed for 882 yards on 161 carries and 17 touchdowns for an average of about 5.5 yards per carry. Sophomores Sawyer Depp and Wes Bowling will also come back with some varsity experience along with junior wide receivers Austin King and Nate Roberts.
One area of focus this off-season with both the offensive linemen and skill position players is adjusting to different looks defenses throw against them, especially in the Red Zone. Deaton attributed that and pressure to score down there as reasons for the Bluebird struggles inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
In the playoff win over Oldham County, Highlands saw a snap go over Cramer's head for a huge loss after Cramer recovered the ball when the Bluebirds drove deep into Colonel territory in the second half. Deaton said when opposing defenses give offenses different looks, players can second guess or questions themselves leading to mistakes such as penalties or negative plays.
But Deaton said the Bluebirds plan to go over game situations in the off-season. The staff put the ball all over the field and gave the offense four to 10 plays to score on each sequence.
"The simpler we can keep it, the better and the fewer mistakes we're going to make," Deaton said. "When it really matters is when you get into the red zone. That's when players and coaches pay little more attention to what they're doing. Defenses will switch what they're doing and go man, put an extra guy in the box or blitz more often. Linebackers play up closer as opposed to further away with their depth."
Highlands begins its off-season work-outs in January and continues them until spring ball.
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