Highland head coach Spencer Hill is on the hunt for three-in-a-row.
Returning three starters from last year’s powerhouse offensive line, which led the Rebels to a second consecutive conference title and a trip to the state semifinals, Hill is looking to be “competitive” in the strong 3-4A Conference again this year.
To do that, he says he’ll again be looking to the strength and leadership of his returning starters while guarding against the general inexperience of the team as a whole.
“Strengths for us? We got a strong offensive line.” Hill said. “We’ve got three starters returning up front, and we’ve got pretty good team speed, which, you know, is the name of the game. So, our offensive front’s gonna be pretty good.
“Weaknesses? That is just probably overall inexperience. We lost 18 seniors last year, so we’ve got a lot of kids who’ve never really been out there before.”
Highland brings 39 players to the field this year, seven of them seniors.
“So our numbers are down a little bit, but I think that’s mainly because we’ve got a small senior class,” Hill said.
Even so, Hill said one of Highland’s keys to success will be capitalizing on its depth.
“I think we’ve got a lot of depth,” he said. “You know, our numbers are low, but out of the 39, they all can play. Offense, defense, we’ll be able to start probably 11 different [players] on both sides of the ball still. So I think depth is gonna be a positive key for us.”
Last year, the Rebels went unbeaten in the regular season and took their sole loss to Ozark in the semifinals of the state playoffs, according to Hill, who added that this year’s team will be very similar in style and athleticism.
“We’ve got the same type of players as we had last year,” he said. “It’s just the inexperience factor is kind of gonna be the difference. Our goal is — since we’re so young — is we’ll just hopefully improve every week, and hopefully by the end of the year, we’re gonna be a dangerous team.”
Asked about key games, Hill mentioned late-season conference turns with highly-ranked Valley View and Gosnell.
“Well, you know, Valley View …,” he said. “We’ve won the conference the last two years, and I know they’re gonna be really good, so that stretch of Valley View to Gosnell (weeks 6 and 7), we need to be playing our best at that time.
Anchoring the offensive line are returning starters Tyler Delargy (6-1, 245), Ted Woodson (6-4, 260) and Nico Tremain (5-10, 245).
Delargy, at left guard, boasts a 350-pound bench press and a 500-pound squat, and Hill commented that Delargy was his best lineman last year.
Woodson returns to the left tackle spot, and Tremain will labor at right guard.
Returning junior wide receivers Avery Johnson (6-2, 205) and Deon Stewart (6-0, 155) will also be “really good playmakers” for the Rebels this year, Hill said.
The extremely versatile Johnson, who doubles at quarterback, has 4.6 speed and ran for 478 yards and seven scores last year. In addition, he caught 41 passes for 750 more yards and another eight touchdowns.
Stewart had nine catches for 264 yards and five touchdowns last fall.
“Both of them (Johnson and Stewart) will definitely be next-level players,” Hill said.
Defensively, Shawn Young (5-10, 175), last year’s second leading tackler, will be returning at outside linebacker, and senior Cody Odell (6-0, 165) will play corner.
Odell turned in 46 tackles and five interceptions in 2012, and Hill will again be looking to the senior for leadership in the secondary.
Overall, Hill said, he’s expecting another great season out of the Rebels.
“We’re hoping to challenge for the championship,” Hill said. “This year’s kind of a test to see where our program’s at, you know. We won it the last two years, but we’re kind of in a reloading process, so we’re hoping to be up there. We’re expecting to be in the race.”