Class AA blog: Checking in with Bremen

For Bremen Blue Devils football coach Davis Russell, the acronym “GATA” is a catchphrase that holds dear to his heart.

In 1965, the Georgia Bulldogs weren’t playing to their capabilities against their “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” rivals, Georgia Tech. At halftime, they filed into the locker room, where the desks had the acronym “GTAA” (Georgia Tech Athletic Association) embedded on the back. To motivate his players, Bulldogs defensive coordinator Erk Russell — Davis’ grandfather — decided to switch the letters around to “GATA”, which he said stood for “Get After Their (Butt)”.

Erk Russell took that saying with him to Statesboro, where he founded the Georgia Southern football program and the Eagles still use that phrase to this day. 

And so does Bremen.

“That’s our battle cry,” Russell said. “Especially on defense.”

GATA isn’t the only saying Russell is using from his grandfather nowadays. Given the current circumstances, he leans on the following words of wisdom from Erk: “If you don’t have the best of everything, make the best of everything you’ve got.”

At Bremen, Russell requires all football players to participate in at least one other sport. As a result, most student-athletes play a spring sport, so the football Blue Devils don’t hold spring practice. So while the program wasn’t directly affected by the cancellation of all GHSA activities, they still have had to navigate these unprecedented times like everyone else.

In that regard, the Blue Devils are doing more than most programs in terms of making the best of what they’ve got. 

They have three different workout plans depending on the players’ individual situations — one for those who have weights, one for those with limited access to weights and a bodyweight-centric plan for those with no access to weights. Workout sessions are scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the team participates together via Zoom. Those sessions include running drills, with a coach blowing the whistle. If a player is unable to attend, he can record his workout and then send it to the staff.

In addition to the online workout sessions, there are regular staff meetings and weekly senior leadership meetings that feature a different guest speaker every week — with all of it conducted online.

“It’s very weird but it’s good to see everyone and keep the team engaged,” Russell said.

The Blue Devils finished 8-4 last year, advancing to the second round for the second year in a row — despite losing a program-record 30 seniors from a 2018 team that finished 9-3. They’ve enjoyed a winning season every year Russell has been there, going 33-14 since 2016.

The 2020 team will return five starters on each side of the ball. 

On offense, running back Montarious Banks and offensive lineman Alex Bearden are key returners. They’ll have a new quarterback in Tucker Hendrix, with Brooks Hardie also in the mix.

Hendrix will also lead the defense from the safety position, where he earned all-area honors last year. Linebackers Daulton Payne, Jack Pullen and Austin Faulkner, defensive lineman Jake Thompson and cornerback Mcclennon Duncan are also expected to be impact players.

The Blue Devils remain in a new-look, five-team Region 5 that adds Haralson County from AAA and loses Jordan, Lamar County and Spencer, with the holdovers being Callaway, Heard County and Temple. All teams in the revamped region made the playoffs last year.

The fight for those four playoffs spots will be rigorous, but Russell believes the Blue Devils have a shot at their first region title since 2008. They were within a touchdown of accomplishing that last season, with their only region loss coming 20-14 to Callaway.

“We’re right there in the mix,” Russell said. “I think this region is wide open.”

The Blue Devils won’t play in the Erk Russell Classic this year, as they have the past two seasons, but they will play six non-region games, including against perennial contenders Pepperell and Darlington, with Bowdon a team on the rise. Five of those teams — Clarkston, Pepperell, Pinecrest, Maynard Jackson and Darlington — Russell has never coached against.

Last season, the Blue Devils started 0-2 and 2-3 before going on a six-game win streak. They posted three shutouts — including a 17-0 win over Model in the state playoffs — and wouldn’t lose again until eventual state champions Dublin beat them in the second round.

“When we took the field in the (season-opening) Erk Russell Classic against Rabun County, we had 20 guys on the field who’d never started,” Russell said. “We started off slow but we got better and better each week and figured out our identity, which was playing great defense.”

Given the experience returning this season, the Blue Devils are hoping to exceed last season’s success.

“Our goal is to strive in every aspect of being a great team and to get better every week,” Russell said. “You don’t want to be paying your best in Week 1 — you want to peak when the region schedule starts.”

The Blue Devils’ 5-AA opener is scheduled for Oct. 16 at Callaway.

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