JOHNSTON, S.C. --- Five times this season, they've gathered in the school cafeteria, savoring over barbecue chicken, macaroni and cheese and green beans.
But before the Strom Thurmond football players can dig into their pregame feast, all eyes train toward Tra'ves Bush. The senior linebacker is charged with saying the blessing. It's an easy chore for Bush, because he practically grew up nearby at Bland Baptist Church.
Once the Rebels take the field, it's more of the same. Bush, a 170-pound linebacker, kind of represents an undersized defense that has dominated its first five opponents and become the identity of a team that for most of this decade has been known for its slippery, strong-armed quarterback.
Strom Thurmond's scheme and depth have allowed its defense to give up only 19 points in five games. Just North Augusta has scored on its starting unit (Ridge Spring-Monetta scored two touchdowns after falling behind 35-0). This year's Rebels, giving up about a field goal per game, are more in line with their recent state-title team, which gave up 10.5 points per game in 2005. The past two years, the Rebels have surrendered 14.4 and 16.2 points, respectively.
"Coaches have always told us there's something special about our group, that we have a chance to do what the 2005 team did," said Bush, who leads the area with 67 tackles.
Pick a Friday night, and Champ Merriweather was there, scampering around the tiny patch of grass near the Strom Thurmond bleachers. Like most of his current teammates, Merriweather grew up playing touch football at the school while the varsity game roared on behind him. He closed his eyes and saw himself scoring touchdowns for the Rebels.
But when Merriweather got to high school, he felt he could have the most impact preventing them.
"It's just my thing now," said Merriweather, a 155-pound defensive back.
There are plenty of opportunities for players like Bush and Merriweather to make plays in the Rebels 3-5 defense, which uses three down lineman and five linebackers. Most teams use more than three linemen.
No one on the Rebels line had experience heading into the season, which concerned coach Lee Sawyer. He grew optimistic, however, when the starters didn't allow a point in any preseason jamboree or scrimmage.
"This is probably the fastest group I've had here," said Sawyer, in his fourth season as coach.
Newcomer Octavious Brown, a 260-pound budding college prospect, has been especially surprising. As teams work hard to neutralize Brown in the middle of the line, it frees Bush for punishing tackles, said Silver Bluff coach Al Lown, whose team lost to Strom Thurmond 7-0 last week.
"You can get away with playing smaller kids (in the 3-5 defense) because you're doing a lot more stunting," said Lown.
Only Maurice Brown, a linebacker who has also run for 410 yards and seven touchdowns, starts on both sides of the ball for the Rebels. Just four players see significant time on both offense and defense, which indicates strong depth.
"I think we are wearing some teams out," Bush said.
Bush will keep saying the team's prayer until the Rebels lose, said Sawyer.
The senior has followed a script he learned from a former player: give thanks for the food, the folks who prepared it and the team. It's all done in about 10 seconds, but it goes a long way in setting the tone for the rest of the night.
"As long as we win," Merriweather said, "I have no problem with him saying it."
Reach Matt Middleton at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
DEFENSE RULES AT STROM THURMOND
Strom Thurmond has given up three touchdowns in five games:
OPPONENT: Ridge Spring-Monetta
SCORING PLAY: 16-yard touchdown pass to make it 35-6, and 1-yard touchdown run to make it 49-12
FINAL SCORE: 49-12
OPPONENT: North Augusta
SCORING PLAY: 2-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0
FINAL SCORE: 21-7