As John Russ took a knee, it was as if Mercer football’s prayers had finally been answered. The disappointment of so many close games -- losses of five, three, two, one, three and two over two seasons -- was finally forgotten for one night: Nov. 7.
On a brisk Saturday night in Five Star Stadium, Mercer football earned the program’s greatest victory since its rebirth as it shocked No. 3 Chattanooga 17-14.
Head coach Bobby Lamb joked that “maybe they couldn’t see us out there,” alluding to the camouflage uniforms the Bears donned in honor of Military Appreciation Day. But after that victory, Mercer won’t be incognito.
At least it shouldn’t be.
Now entering its fourth season and finally on a level playing field with 63 scholarship players, Mercer returns all but two starters to a squad who — through injuries to key players — finished 5-6 last season. So just how special can 2016 be for the Bears?
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. How will the cornerback depth hold up?
Even though Mercer finished as the best scoring defense in the conference last year allowing 21.6 points per game, cornerback was a position of weakness given the lack of depth. Granted, injuries were a large reason for the depth issues.
Junior Jeremy James returns as a third-year starter and will be paired with sophomore Stephen Houzah – a.k.a., “Houzah Daddy,” a nickname I thought I had created until I heard he had already been called that.
Houzah came on strong early as a freshman in a two-interception performance against Stetson before dealing with injuries and an eventual ACL tear. Lamb said Houzah is back to 100 percent.
The Bears lose Alex Avant but bring in transfer Kam Lott and freshman Harrison Poole. Lamb spoke highly of the two new incomers along with redshirt freshman Eric Jackson, who tore his Achilles his senior year of high school.
Mercer still signed him and redshirted the corner last year, who Lamb said has “really lit it up” so far.
“We’ve gone from last year maybe having two corners to having five corners this year that we like -- maybe five and a half,” Lamb said. “That position went from being a, ‘hold onto your breath … hopefully no one gets hurt,’ to a pretty deep position.”
But while it’s comforting to hear Lamb speak highly of the position, we first need to see those newcomers make an impact on the field before we can be fully comfortable with the depth at the position.
2. Get used to a firework show
The Bears have more weapons than a Bass Pro Shops. Wide receiver Chandler Curtis, who played only 42 snaps last season because of injuries, will be back on the field Week 1. As a freshman, Curtis recorded a team-high 564 receiving yards and five touchdowns while dominating as a kick returner.
His receiving totals, on top of a 29.8-yard kickoff return average — ranking him fourth in the nation — made him the program’s first All-American. Without Curtis’s 20.1-yard-per-catch average last season, the Bears struggled in the big-play department.
“We did an evaluation of our offense as we always do, and we lacked explosive plays,” Lamb said. “Chandler Curtis gives us the option to throw a 3- or 4-yard pass and maybe get 30 or 40 yards.”
But Curtis isn’t the only receiving option. Junior Avery Ward returns as the eighth-leading receptions grabber in the Southern Conference (SoCon), while 6-foot-2 sophomore Marquise Irvin showed flashes of potential as a freshman.
And don’t forget about TEU, as Lamb calls it. Tight end Sam Walker was second on the team with 25 catches last season and was named to the Preseason Second Team All-SoCon squad. Fellow tight end Robert Brown was also a weapon in 2015, finishing third on the team in receiving yards.
“Our tight end group is as good of a tight end group as you’ll see in FCS football,” Lamb said.
And that’s not just being braggadocios, considering the pair combined for an impressive 42 receptions last season. In the backfield, Alex Lakes will carry the load, finally healthy after dealing with a punctured lung for a chunk of last season.
Jimmie Robinson moved from wide receiver to running back and will be “a guy who touches the ball a lot,” according to Lamb. Expect Robinson to be the lightning to Lakes’ thunder, potentially filling the Tee Mitchell role of last season.
And all of those toys in the skill positions will be led by fourth-year starting quarterback John Russ, who Lamb said will be the starter despite the transfer of Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary.
“I think [John]’s ready to knock the top off of it,” Lamb said. “He knows our offense inside and out. He can call the plays if something happens to me on the sideline. I feel really good about John and his ability to lead this team.”
3. Can the Bears survive the first five weeks?
Mercer gained some much-needed confidence with wins over SoCon and Furman late last season. It will be vital for the Bears to utilize that momentum with a good start in 2016, but the first five games on the schedule are a doozy.
The Bears open the season at home against SoCon co-champion The Citadel, then have to travel to Georgia Tech in Week 2. But the road doesn’t become easier after the Yellow Jackets. Tennessee Tech, who defeated Mercer last season, comes to Five Star Stadium before Mercer goes on a two-game road trip at VMI and Chattanooga.
A 3-2 record through that stretch would be a solid start. A 2-3 or 1-4 beginning to the season would be difficult to recover from for a team who is extremely confident right now. Mercer will most likely have to beat at least one of two — The Citadel or Chattanooga — if it wants a SoCon title in 2016.
“We’ve got a lot of talent in a lot of spots, and it’s just a matter of these guys getting out here and competing every Saturday -- competing every single day.”
[pullquote speaker="Head coach Bobby Lamb" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]“I think [John Russ] is ready to knock the top off of it. He knows our offense inside and out. He can call the plays if something happens to me on the sideline. I feel really good about John and his ability to lead this team.[/pullquote]
Sept. 1: The Citadel (7 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 33-27
In its first two seasons in the Southern Conference, Mercer has lost to The Citadel twice by two points. The Bears were an extra point conversion away from tying the SoCon’s co-champion in last year’s road contest.
Mercer, who will have to limit the Bulldogs’ triple option attack, will be fully healthy and utilizes home-field advantage for a win in the season opener.
Sept. 10: at Georgia Tech (3 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer loses 52-24
Even though the odds are ever not in Mercer’s favor to beat Georgia Tech, playing a high-level FBS opponent at this stage is a great stepping stone for Mercer football. I don’t expect an embarrassing trouncing, though, considering the Bears will be facing a triple option in Week 1.
Paul Johnson throws his own wrinkles into the offensive philosophy, but facing The Citadel a week before Georgia Tech is certainly good timing. The Bears score late to make it a pretty respectable contest.
Sept. 17: Tennessee Tech (4 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 31-23
Tennessee Tech was Mercer’s first loss last season, but this year the Bears face the Golden Eagles at home. Tennessee Tech loses its starting quarterback from last year, Jared Davis, who had a field day against Mercer – 18-of-26 for 301 yards and two touchdowns.
Oct. 1: at VMI (1:30 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 35-23
The Keydets are the beginning of a testy two-game conference road trip and boast, arguably, the best quarterback in the SoCon in Al Cobb. The redshirt junior led the league in passing yards by a wide margin, finishing with 2,736 last season -- 494 more than anyone else.
But while Cobb is a major threat, VMI is one of the lesser teams in the SoCon, coming in at No. 8 on the Preseason Coaches Poll.
Oct. 8: at Chattanooga (4 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer loses 27-17
Cinderella only went to the ball once — I think. To be honest, I don’t believe I ever watched the movie — and it’s tough to expect her to come out again. The Mocs were voted by the league’s coaches to win the conference and are ranked No. 7 in the FCS to begin the season.
While Mercer will be improved this year, beating Chattanooga on the road would be quite the feat. The Mocs will be especially hungry to beat the Bears.
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Oct. 15: Western Carolina (4 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 23-20
Mercer led 21-3 early in the second quarter against Western Carolina before allowing the Catamounts to score the final 21 points of the game. Expect a relatively low-scoring, close game, but Mercer ekes out a victory at home over the fourth-ranked SoCon team.
Oct. 22: at Austin Peay (4 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 45-14
The Governors are one of two teams on the schedule who should be easy wins for Mercer. The Bears opened 2015 with a 28-7 win over Austin Peay, but in 2014, Mercer destroyed the Governors 49-21. Mercer should have no trouble governing this game on the road.
Oct. 29: at Wofford (1:30 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 30-20
The Wofford loss last season is one I would love to forget but simply can’t. Early in the season after a loss to Tennessee Tech, the Bears could have gained some momentum with a conference win but instead dropped a devastating outing at home.
I doubt I’m the only one who can’t forget that game, and I expect an improved Mercer team -- the better team in this matchup -- to take care of business on the road.
Nov. 5: East Tennessee State (3 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 49-10
This was probably the toughest game to pick on the schedule. Does Mercer win by 30? Or does it win by 40? These are major, life-defining questions.
Ultimately, I chose the latter given Mercer’s 52-0 win last year, a win in which the Bears had 373 total yards on offense -- in the first half.
Nov. 12: at Samford (3:30 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer loses 41-34
We might as well call Samford “WRU” -- Wide Receiver University. The Bulldogs boast three of the top four receptions leaders in the SoCon from last season -- Karel Hamilton (75), Kelvin McKnight (57) and Emmanuel Obajimi (54).
On top of the weapons out wide, Samford’s offense is led by redshirt sophomore Devlin Hodges, who finished second in the league with 2,230 passing yards in 2015 -- in only five starts. Five. He passed for 392 yards in Samford’s 47-21 win over Mercer in the final game.
Don’t expect another blowout. The Bulldogs actually trailed in the game until late in the third quarter and pulled away in the fourth behind two 94-yard touchdowns. But in a battle of two explosive offenses, Samford gets the final laugh as it’s fueled by its home crowd.
Nov. 19: Furman (3 p.m.)
Prediction: Mercer wins 24-13
Beating Furman will always be extra special while Lamb is on the sidelines for Mercer. Furman’s head coach from 2002-2010, Lamb led the Bears to their third-ever SoCon victory when they defeated the Paladins 27-20 on the road last year.
Furman struggled to a 4-7 record last year, and given Mercer’s improvements this season, it should handle the Paladins at home in the season finale.
‘The Ruling’: Projecting Mercer football’s season