BY MARK SCHMETZER
Ask Highlands coach Dale Mueller to name the top five football players in Northern Kentucky, and he might rattle off the names of five Bluebirds.
That's why Mueller isn't intimidated by the prospect of having to replace two All-Americans and 15 seniors from a team that hammered its way to six state records in an undefeated Class AAA state championship season.
Other observers share his confidence. The Bluebirds (1-0) are ranked No. 1 in the Enquirer's preseason coaches poll and No. 1 among Kentucky Class AAA teams in Louisville's Courier-Journal coaches poll.
Highlands, which also stands 19th in Fox Sports Net's "Fox Fab 50" national ratings, showed it might not miss a beat with a 50-15 beating of Hancock County in its opener last Saturday.
"Coach Mueller says we're ranked 19th because of last year," junior quarterback Gino Guidugli said. "We've still got to prove ourselves."
Mueller, in his sixth year at Highlands and 15th as a head coach, is counting on a deep well of talent to make up for the loss of quarterback Jared Lorenzen and tight end Derek Smith, the prep All-Americans now playing at Kentucky.
"We have outstanding speed and many outstanding players with great athleticism and football skills," Mueller said. "We don't believe we have a team weakness."
Most local football followers would expect potential question marks at quarterback and tight end. Mueller anticipates Guidugli - who, at 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, is sized more like a quarterback than the linebacker-like Lorenzen - and 6-4, 230-pound junior tight end Brent Grover will be fine fits.
"Brent has the talent, size, intelligence, speed, character and ability to be one of the top players in the country," Mueller said. "Gino is a Division I prospect and is emerging as a great quarterback."
Guidugli completed 11 of 13 passes for 281 yards and four touchdowns against Hancock County.
"People come up to me all the time and say, 'You know, you have big shoes to fill,' "Guidugli said. "But I learned a lot from Jared in practice last year, and this year, I'm going to put it to use."
As high-powered and wide-open as the Highlands attack was last season, the throttle might be even more open this year with the presence of three talented wide receivers - seniors Adam Johnston and Frank Benton and junior Brett Hamblen. They could help smooth the insertion of junior running back/defensive lineman Brian Barre to the starting backfield, where he'll team with senior Brenden Zenni.
Barre caught one of Guidugli's TD passes and Zenni scored two on the ground. Johnston and Grover also caught TD passes.
"Brett was one of the most valuable players on the 1998 team," Mueller said. "He made numerous big plays on the both sides of the ball. Adam has great speed and ability and will be a big-time player. Frank is a Division I prospect and will be a major force at outside linebacker this year."
"Brian is an outstanding defensive lineman and running back with excellent speed and great desire."