The two games everyone is talking about on Mercer’s schedule are the two least important games of the year, said Coach Bobby Lamb.
Mercer will travel to Auburn and Alabama this fall one year after playing against its first FBS opponent—Georgia Tech—since the team’s re-establishment. In the Preseason Coaches Poll, Alabama is ranked No. 1 in the country while Auburn is ranked No. 13.
“This team knows, ‘Hey, we have two shots on the big stage to prove our worth,’” Lamb said. “However, they’re probably the two least important games on the schedule, because every conference game is going to matter. Every conference game is going to come down to the fourth quarter. Our goal is to win a Southern Conference championship.”
The Bears fell short of that goal last season, as they finished 6-5 (4-4 SoCon) and fifth in the conference.
Mercer placed offensive lineman Brett Niederreither on the All-SoCon First Team; wide receiver Marquise Irvin, and defensive linemen Isaiah Buehler and Tosin Aguebor on the All-SoCon Second Team; and linebacker Will Coneway, defensive back Eric Jackson and defensive lineman Dorian Kithcart on the All-Freshman Team.
Mercer kicks off August 31 at 7 p.m. in Jacksonville. Four key storylines will be worth monitoring this season.
Mercer will have to replace 29 seniors—some of whom were part of the “Day Ones” group—including starting quarterback John Russ; offensive linemen Niederreither, Kirby Southard and Mitch Payne; running back Payton Usher; wide receivers Jordan Marshall and Josh Jones; linebackers Tosin Aguebor, Tyler Ward and Tripp Patterson; defensive backs Zach Jackson, Lendell Arnold and Jeremy James; and punter Tyler Zielenske.
“Those guys were here for so long. It’s kind of funny. You see jersey numbers out there, and you think, ‘Oh, this is supposed to be Tosin Aguebor.’ But it’s actually Ahmad Arnold, because they have the same body type,” Lamb said. “Those guys will always be remembered as the guys who not only laid the foundation and started the program, [but] they stuck it out for five years. We had a lot of kids quit over the years, and a lot of kids who moved on and did different things. Those 30 guys really stuck it out and stayed the course. Their leadership will be missed.”
There has only been one starting quarterback since the program was re-established: John Russ. With Russ having graduated, there will be a new sheriff at the helm in the fall, but Lamb has not decided who that quarterback will be yet.
“Right now, it’s a three-headed race,” Lamb said. “We’re not close to a decision. We’re going to let this thing play out.”
Redshirt freshman Kaelan Riley, redshirt junior Tanner Brumby and true freshman Robert Riddle are the three quarterbacks currently in the mix. Brumby is the only quarterback on the roster who has taken a snap in college.
“With [John Russ] not being here, there’s absolutely zero experience on the field,” Lamb said. “[Russ] took every significant snap in four years of his career, which is pretty incredible.”
Lamb said because the team only had two quarterbacks on the roster in the spring, Riley and Brumby received a large workload in 15 days of practice.
Riley stands at 6-foot-4, 222 pounds and is a “guy that can extend the play and make plays with his feet,” Lamb said. The head coach said he’s been very impressed with Riley’s leadership on the field.
“He’s just got to see things happening,” Lamb said. “It’ll slow down for him in a bit the next couple of weeks.”
Offensive Coordinator Casey Vogt said Brumby was the outside guy looking in, but the team gave him certain skills to work on over the summer, and he has improved in those areas showing he’s coachable and wants to win.
Lamb described Brumby as a player who can run and push the ball down the field.
The third and youngest quarterback in the mix, Riddle, received high praise from both Lamb and Vogt. The freshman joins Mercer out of The McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“He’s done things out there that’s uncanny for a true freshman,” Lamb said.
He said Riddle had a lot thrown at him in the first week of training camp but absorbed it all. Vogt also said Riddle was a bright learner and really sharp.
“Coaching at this level now for 16 years, he’s really far along for a true freshman,” Vogt said.
Lamb said the decision will be made a week before the team’s first game on Aug. 24.
“It’s like they kind of alternate,” Vogt said. “Each one has a better practice than the next one; they just kind of keep going back and forth—all three of them—so that’s really good to see there.”
RUNNING BACK DEPTH
Injuries and a lack of depth depleted Mercer’s running back corps by the end of last season. With running back Tee Mitchell suspended for the year, Alex Lakes took on the lead role while backed up by Payton Usher and C.J. Kleckley.
However, injuries took a toll.
“We were moving linebackers over. We were having injury after injury after injury,” Vogt said. “We couldn’t keep them healthy.”
But with Mitchell returning this year as well as the additions of Georgia Tech transfer C.J. Leggett and freshmen Tyray Devezin and Rashad Haynes, there’s a full stable of running backs.
Lakes returns as the team’s second-leading rusher—449 yards—from last season, behind only quarterback John Russ. Mitchell tallied 1,135 all-purpose yards during the 2015 season before his suspension.
Leggett, who began his career at Georgia Tech, played at Mesa Community College last season, tallying 323 yards and two touchdowns.
Lamb raved about Devezin, a 225-pound back, saying he was “probably the most impressive freshman out there.” Haynes, who is 186 pounds, was described as the speedster of the corps by Lamb.
“We went from basically zero running backs at the end of last year because everyone got hurt to five strong running backs,” Lamb said. “The running back position, it takes a toll injury-wise, but the ability to have [Mitchell] back as a guy who can really stretch the field really gives you some options on offense.”
The Bears ranked eighth in the Southern Conference in points allowed per game, 28.9, last season. Only Western Carolina—36.0 points per game—was worse in that department.
Lamb attributes some of those defensive struggles to poor starts, specifically noting games against The Citadel and Samford.
“We just have to start a little bit better,” Lamb said. “Our depth is going to help us. The ability to play a lot of players helps you in your depth. It’s just kind of a mindset. We have to be ready to go at the opening snap this year.”
In order to improve defensively, Mercer will be anchored by a defensive line touting 2016 All-SoCon Second Team member Isaiah Buehler and 2016 All-SoCon Freshman Team member Dorian Kitchart.
“We know what those two guys can do,” Lamb said. “They’re playing extremely well right now at a high level.”
Six of the team’s ten top tacklers from last season have graduated, leaving an opening for others to produce high numbers.
And that’s the feeling surrounding the program entering this season: Players have an opportunity to make an impact. Mitchell, returning to the team after missing a year, said it feels like he came back to an entirely new program.
"It’s like everybody actually believes, ‘Hey, this is the year we can get over the hump,’” Mitchell said. “This is the year we can make a push for a championship. This is the year we’re closer together as brothers.’”