Highlands has keeper in junior quarterback Leri

| Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, 12:46 a.m.

Last year proved to be a learning experience for the Highlands football team.

With just five rostered seniors, it was up to the underclassmen to quickly become acclimated to the rigors of Class AAA football.

One player who developed rapidly was quarterback Blake Leri. As a sophomore, he passed for 815 yards before his season ended with two torn knee ligaments.

“Luckily, it was the last game of the season,” Leri said. “Recovery time fit perfectly with the offseason. There were some rough times during the recovery process.”

Leri expects to be ready Aug. 30 when the Golden Rams play Hollidaysburg in the season opener.

Despite missing the WPIAL playoffs, Highlands improved as the season progressed.

“It seems like we jelled more throughout the season,” Leri said. “We got more comfortable with each other, and we started clicking around the fifth game of the season.”

Highlands' 2012 season could nearly be divided into halves. The Golden Rams lost their first four games, won their next four then fell to Knoch in the season finale.

“He really impressed me as a playmaker as a sophomore,” Highlands coach Sam Albert said of Leri. “He reminds me a lot of (former Highlands standout) Jeff Sinclair and (Freeport's) Luke Westerman, (Butler's) Tim Nunes. Anytime we have kids who are a run-throw threat, you become pretty good offensively.”

The late-season success raised expectation levels for this year.

“We have almost every back, but the other teams are returning a lot of people, too,” Leri said. “We're not trying to get too high, but we know we have a lot of good people coming back.”

Running a Sam Albert offense can be fun for many players, what with sets designed to confuse the opposition.

“It's a lot fun running the ‘confusion,' just because you don't know what you're going to do with the ball,” Leri said. “It's just like backyard football — you make a play, and it's fun.”

“We call Blake ‘Johnny Football,' ” Albert said with a laugh, referring to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. “We just told him to stay away from the autograph thing. He's a great kid, a good student, and he's very coachable.”

Albert is also happy with how quickly Leri picked up offensive schemes last year.

“What really helps is when you have an honor student at that position,” Albert said. “It makes it so much easier. He even comes up with ideas on his own.”

On defense, Leri played safety last year. Indications are, however, that the coaching staff will use Leri sparingly on defense this season, particularly as he continues to recover from the serious knee injury.

Leri is also aware of the athletic tradition in his family. His great uncle, Dan Leri, was an Associated Press first-team all-state player for Freeport in 1974.

George Guido is a freelance writer.

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