Making it to the state playoffs hasn’t been a huge problem for the Bulloch Academy Gators - they’ve advanced for four straight years. But getting past the first round has been another thing, as that hasn’t happened since 2009.
This year, the Gators have plenty of reasons to feel as if they can take that next step. The team returns virtually intact from a year ago when the Gators went 6-4 before falling to Deerfield-Windsor in the opening round of state.
“We are very excited about this year’s team,” said Bulloch Academy coach Pat Collins. “We have a great mixture of veteran leadership, and youthful talent. I’m excited about what offensive coordinator Bill Shaver and his staff have been able to do on the offensive side of the ball, and I feel our defense is up for the task this year as well.”
Collins will be in his first year as Bulloch Academy’s head coach, but is quite familiar with what he has. Collins took over last season as the Gators athletic director, and also helped former head coach Terrence Hennessy with the offensive line.
“It is a different situation for me than I have been used to,” Collins said. “In the past I have come in as a head coach from another school and had to take some time to get to know the players. This year I know them all pretty well.”
The good news starts on the offensive side of the ball where the Gators return quarterback Don Aaron, running backs Tyrone Mingle, Jake Nelson, and Brock Sapp, as well as a number of receivers and tight ends, and arguably one of their largest offensive lines in Gator history, anchored by Statesboro High transfer Chandler Dick and Dylan Overturf, who both tip the scales at about 300 pounds.
“We feel we have six running backs who can all get it done for us,” Collins said. “We have a seasoned senior quarterback, we are at least two deep at receiver and tight end, a huge offensive line, and the boys seem to be catching on to coach Shaver’s offense pretty well.”
On defense look for a lot of the same players on offense to make an impact. Nate Rice returns on the defensive line, Jake Nelson, Jake Wasdin, Will Aaron and Brannen Faircloth at linebacker, and Portal transfer Fisher Oglesby, Matt Childers and Ford Wildes at defensive back.
“Our defense is coming around to be one of our strengths of the team,” Collins said. “As is the case on offense we have a good mixture of seasoned upperclassmen along with some talented newcomers.”
The Gators will get things underway Saturday in the Erk Russell Classic as they take on their biggest rival in the Pinewood Patriots at 10 a.m.
“Playing at Paulson Stadium in my first game as a head coach, against our biggest rival is an interesting way to start things off,” Collins said. “In my 30 year career I’ve never been involved in a football game that started at 10 a.m. We have prepared for that kind of early start by getting ready early this week, and I feel like that will not be an issue.”
“We haven’t talked too much about Pinewood this week, as we have been much more focused on ourselves,” Collins said. “We can’t control who we are playing, where we are playing, or the weather, so we better worry if we can line up correctly, if we can block correctly and if we can tackle correctly.”
As for the Gator players, they are ready to finally get a chance to take the field against another opponent on a field that many have only seen from the stands.
“I’ve watched plenty of Georgia Southern games from the stands so it will be fun to be out their on the turf,” said RB Tyrone Mingle. “I think we are prepared mentally and physically and I think it’s going to be a good contest.”
“We can’t wait, we have been preparing all summer for this,” said offensive lineman J.D. Collins. “I’ve watched Georgia Southern play at Paulson since I was a little kid, it’s going to be a lot of fun playing out there.”
The Gators and Patriots tee things up in the first game of the Erk Russell Classic at 10 a.m. at Paulson Stadium.