Austin Hergott is fully aware that he could have started as the quarterback for multiple years at just about any other school in Northern Kentucky. Even still, he’s certain he’s made the right decision by waiting his turn for three years at Highlands.
“The senior year is a big deal no matter what, but with the quarterback position at Highlands it’s that much bigger because it’s your only shot,” Hergott said. “Building up to it, I feel like I learned more backing up here than I would have starting at other schools for multiple years.”
For the fourth straight season, Highlands will be running out a new quarterback. And Don’t be surprised if for the fourth straight season, the Bluebirds’ have one of the top signal-callers in the area running the show, following in the footsteps of Donovan McCoy (2012), Drew Houliston (2013) and Beau Hoge (2014).
With very little experience or game film on his resume, Hergott impressed college coaches at summer camps, earned a scholarship offer and committed in June to Central Michigan where former Highlands and University of Cincinnati star Gino Guidugli is on the coaching staff.
“I talked to my dad about signing up for a couple of camps and just seeing what happens,” Hergott said. “Central Michigan was the last one I went to out of like nine or 10 camps. I didn’t expect anything other than to maybe draw some interest for the season, but they watched me and offered a week or two later. I loved the school and just knew it was somewhere I could play and compete.”
The 6-foot-4 signal-caller has great size and physical tools for the position. Like last year’s quarterback Beau Hoge, head coach Brian Weinrich expects Hergott to be able to make plays with his arm and his feet, though not necessarily in the same way that Hoge did.
“I’m not as quick as Beau, but I can run the ball efficiently,” Hergott said. “It’s a different style of running; I’m more downhill. It was crazy the stuff Beau could do. He was flashier. If I could do that stuff, I would. I feel like I run pretty hard, though, and I will thrive as a pocket-passer.”
“One thing we had to tell Austin early is that he didn’t have to be anybody else,” Weinrich added. “He doesn’t have to try to be the guy from last year. We tell all of our quarterbacks that. We just told him to ‘be you and do what you do, and as you get comfortable with what you can do we’ll adjust our mindset on offense a little bit.’
“Each guy has some things that they’re more comfortable with, and we really try to make sure we tailor what we’re doing to those guys.”
Hergott credits his improvement to the competition inside Highlands’ program amongst all of the talented athletes vying for their chance to get on the field.
“Even as quarterbacks, we complete our (butts) off,” he said. “For a small part of the year you’re just a quarterback, but during the offseason in everything we do we’re just football players and we’re all competing as a team. We’re one of the hardest competing teams in the state and probably the nation.”
That competitiveness within the program sharpens the talent across the board. So, despite the fact that Weinrich once again has to replace his top playmakers at just about every key position, he’s thrilled about the prospects of this year’s team.
“Since I arrived here 20 years ago, following in Coach Mueller’s footsteps the goal every day was to coach every guy,” Weinrich said. “Whether you’re technically the last guy on the depth chart or the first guy on the depth chart, we want to try and coach you to get you ready.
“It may not be for the play that’s about to happen in five minutes; it may be for three or four years from now. I think that really helps, because guys don’t get neglected when they’re sophomores. Every coach does that, but we just really make sure we try to emphasize it.”
After graduating last year’s top receiver in Alex Veneman, who racked up 1,595 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns, the Bluebirds have a host of pass-catchers battling to be Hergott’s go-to option. Mitchell Cain, who was the team’s second leading receiver last year with 464 yards and four touchdowns, is expected to be one of those players. Weinrich also expects Eric Miller, Chandler New, TJ Sipple, and Bradley Greene to make a significant impact in the passing game.
“We’re rotating 12 to 14 guys at four receiver spots right now, and trying to figure out not if any of them can play but which ones are going to get the most time,” Weinrich said.
The Bluebirds’ offensive line, which returns a handful of guys who gained experience last year, plus the return of senior Nick Kendall, the team’s second-leading rusher from last season (684 yards, six TDs), should help take pressure off of Hergott.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bluebirds lost a core of talented and experienced players, especially at the linebacker position. Weinrich said seniors Luke Lindeman, Conner Welsch and Joe Dressman have really stepped up so far in summer camp to fill those spots at linebacker, but he also expects some young guys to make an impact. Senior nose tackle Tyler Robinson will lead the attack up front after recording 4 1/2 sacks last year, and returning junior Austin Beal should be a standout in the secondary.
Even with Highlands making the jump up from 4A to 5A this season, the Bluebirds will rightfully be seen as the favorite to win a state championship in their classification. That’s another reason Hergott is glad he’s stuck it out for three years at Highlands waiting his turn; he relishes the pressure that comes with continuing the state’s most successful football tradition.
“Two years ago my brother’s senior class lost at state, and hearing their reactions that’s something we definitely don’t want to deal with,” he said. “There’s a ton of pressure on us, but we’ve been working for it and we’re ready to compete with any team in the state.”