Bryan County High School head football coach Cherard Freeman has been in this situation before.
Seven years ago, actually.
That’s when Freeman, a former Georgia Southern slotback, took over the head coaching job at Warren County, which had gone 1-9 the previous season.
It didn't happen overnight.
The Screaming Devils went 0-10 under Freeman that first year, then steadily improved. Last season, Warren County finished 8-5 and made it to the quarterfinals of the state class A football playoffs under Freeman.
He’ll have a similar rebuilding job on his hands in Pembroke, where the Redskins are 1-26 over the past three seasons. Freeman’s recipe for success is simple.
“Kids have got to see you’re genuine about what you’re doing,” he said. “You can’t beat them up and remind them of what they did last year, you just got to tell them to look forward.”
The Redskins bring back only a handful of seniors, and Freeman said he’ll count on them to help bring along a young group of players who’ve shown promise. So far about 46 players have stuck it out through summer workouts that have now extended into the fall.
Bryan County, which has dropped back down to Class A and will compete in Region 3-A, will now play its opener Sept. 4 at home against Butler High, an AAA school from Augusta.
There’s also been talk of an inter squad scrimmage beforehand, and Freeman sings the praises of a community he said has been extremely welcoming and supportive.
In the meantime, the extra time has been a good thing.
“The delayed start is going to help us because I wasn’t here in the spring,” he said. “So we get to continue to lift weights, we get to continue to focus on the little things.”
The Redskins are changing to the Wing-T on offense, but it’ll be presented out of different looks.
“Run it out of all kind of formations,” Freeman said. “You’ll see it out of the Georgia Southern formation a lot because it balances it up. But it’s a physical offense, and we’re looking to change the mindset here.”
Defensively, Bryan County will play from a 4-2-5 offense, but occasionally switch up to a five-man front.
A former Lincoln County High standout who went to average 8 yards per carry for Georgia Southern and played on the Eagles 1999 and 2000 national championship teams, Freeman played for Larry Campbell at Lincoln High and Paul Johnson at GSU. Campbell went 477-85-3 at Lincoln High; Johnson was 62-10 with two titles in five seasons at Georgia Southern before moving on to Navy and then Georgia Tech.
Freeman also named former Lincoln head coach Kevin Banks and Jeff Monken, who was an assistant at Georgia Southern during Freeman’s playing days there, as coaches who’ve helped mold him into a coach.
“I’ve been fortunate to play for some great coaches who knew a lot of football,” he said. “I can call them if I have a question or need advice about handling this or that situation.”
Freeman has a pair of former high school head coaches on his staff – Ron Lewis, who coached at BCHS for 12 seasons, and Tim Adams, another former Georgia Southern player who went 10-2 in his final year at Jenkins in 2016, no small feat for a Savannah School. The staff also includes Sean Coburn and Chad Roberts,
As for COVID, the Redskins haven’t had a player test positive, Freeman said, and the extra time to practice is welcome as they work toward a regular season, whatever form it takes. And if the pandemic means longer days, so be it. Coaches spend nearly an hour cleaning up the weight room and Field House afterward, Freeman said, and “we’re fighting through the same things everybody else is" as far as protocols to deal with keeping students safe while preparing for the season.
That includes getting stronger in the weight room while also learning to be mentally tough and taking accountability. And, facing adversity on the practice field at times to test their ability to handle tough times when they’re tired.
“Football is about being mentally tough. It’s about whether you can fight through the hard times,” Freeman said. “Your mind can tell you things you can’t do, sometimes, when that body can still do it. That’s what being mentally tough is all about.”
The Redskins may not know until they hit the field on Labor Day weekend against a real live opponent just how far they’ve got to go to become as good as they can be, but it'll happen, Freeman said. He knows, because he's been in a situation like this before.
“You’ve got to crawl before you can learn to walk,” he said. “But they’ve already come a long way from that first day.”