Mercer Is ‘Peachy’ About Second SoCon Campaign

The summers in Macon, GA aren’t exactly the most pleasant. They are hot, sticky and might remind you of Statesboro without the gnats and fan hostility. In year one of its Southern Conference membership, it was clear Mercer wasn’t a program that could be taken for granted despite playing with only about 38 scholarship players. Mercer would complete the season with a 6–6 overall mark, with a 1–6 mark in league play.

Head coach Bobby Lamb, who heads into his third year as the Mercer football coach, knew the landscape and knew it would be tough. Lamb spent 29 years plying his trade as Furman quarterback, assistant coach, and head coach before taken on the task of building the Mercer football program from the ground up.

With Georgia Southern having now left for the Sun Belt Conference, Lamb is hoping to make the soon to the be seven members in the league dread the trip to Macon for more than just the heat, much like opponents and their fans dreaded trips to Statesboro to take on Georgia Southern for more than just the gnats. The Bears now carry the torch as the lone Southern Conference program located in the Peach State, and after year one, the Bears and their fans are pretty excited about the progress, especially finding themselves in far more fourth quarter games than ones that had been decided by the final frame.

Though the Bears won just one Southern Conference game in their first season as a league member — a 27–24 triumph at VMI — the Orange and Black certainly raised more than a few eyebrows on the final weekend in October, as the Bears played maybe their best game of the season in a 38–31 loss at eventual league champion Chattanooga. It would be the only game the Mocs would be pushed to the limit in a Southern Conference in 2014.

Part of the early process of building a program for Lamb and company has been building confidence, which means scheduling the likes of Ave Maria, Stetson, Warner and Shorter. However, that trend will likely change in the next few seasons with more and more scholarship players arriving in the program.

The Bears were dealt quite a blow in preseason camp last season, as Tosin Aguebor — an all-conference caliber defensive back — went down midway through camp with a season-ending injury. It was a tough loss for the Bears. A couple of weeks later, the Bears opened the season on a Thursday night against Reihardt, who were a talented JUCO program, and it took a missed field goal in the waning seconds for the Bears to hang on for victory one in their first Southern Conference season.

On Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, it marked a historic moment in the history of Mercer athletics, as the Bears took the field in their first-ever Southern Conference game. The Bears would tangle with reigning Southern Conference champion Furman, holding the lead twice in the contest before Gary Wilkins — a player recruited to Furman by Lamb — made an amazing play on a short attempted screen pass to the right side by Mercer sophomore quarterback John Russ, intercepting the pass and retutning it 19 yards for what proved to be the game-winning score, as Furman held on for the 25–20 win.

Mercer would find itself in most all of its seven Southern Conference games in its first season in the league, losing just twice in league play by more than a TD. Only Wofford (L, 34–6) and Western Carolina (L, 35–21) would claim decisive wins over the Bears in 2014. Looking back on it, the first Southern Conference season for the Bears probably went better for Lamb and the Bears than even he expected, especially with about 20 less scholarship players.

I can speak from experiencing the Bears’ first Southern Conference game in history against Furman — the atmosphere combined with the facilities are the best in the Southern Conference with the departure of both Georgia Southern and Appalachian State on a weekly basis. I realize that the atmospheres are also strong at Western Carolina, Chattanooga and The Citadel, but Mercer is creating its own tradition and atmosphere on Saturdays in the fall, with the whole community behind it. The SoCon should take note.

The Bears welcome the return of 21 of 22 starters for the 2015 season, and the bar has been raised by such a positive performance in the first Southern Conference campaign for Lamb’s Bears.

Returning to lead that Mercer offense this fall will be John Russ (138-of-244 passing, 2,167 yds, 19 TDs, 10 INTs/387 yds, 5 TDs) returns to lead that Mercer offense, and though his rushing yards went down significantly from the Bears’ 10-win season in the Pioneer League, it had more to do with having the league’s best running back to hand the ball to than Russ being hitting the dreaded sophomore swoon some players seem to encounter coming off a sensational freshman campaign.

Russ’ ability to lead the offense against the FCS’ best competition was answered last season, and it was answered from the outset of Southern Conference play against Furman. Despite the five-point loss, the Bears showed they weren’t intimidated by the Southern Conference elite. It would be again revealed later in the season against the nationally-ranked Mocs.

Russ’ job is made much easier with running back Alex Lakes (200 rush att, 1,107 yds, 17 TDs, 5.5 YPG) in the backfield. Lakes garnered First Team All-SoCon honors after his breakout first season. It was only the second time in Lamb’s career as a head coach in which he has coached a 1,000-yard rusher in the backfield. The only other season was the 2003 campaign, when Furman’s Hindley Brigham went over the 1,000-yard plateau for the season.

Lakes enjoyed six 100-yard rushing efforts during the 2014 season, with his best coming against Stetson in a lopsided non-conference win, rushing for a career-best 151 yards and three scores. In league action, Lakes produced his best performance against title contender Western Carolina, rushing for 128 yards and a TD on 34 carries.

Freshman Tee Mitchell (74 rush att, 403 yds, 2 TDs, 5.4 YPC/234 yds, 2 TDs), who is coming off a season which saw him post 637 all-purpose yards, returns for his sophomore season as a very capable backup and one of the most explosive players on the offensive side of the ball.

Lakes found plenty of empty green land in his first season toting the pigskin for the Bears due to an offensive line that was among the best in the Southern Conference last season. Led by left guard Wilson Heres, who was a First Team All-SoCon pick last season, the Bears finished the campaign ranked third in the Southern Conference in total offense (401.0 YPG), while finishing the campaign fourth in rushing offense (203.1 YPG).

Joining Heres along the offensive front this fall will be joined by four other returning starters, with A.M. Posey (RT), Avery White (RG), Thomas Marchman (LT) and Kirby Southard (C). Southard is another of those Mercer players with All-SoCon potential heading into the fall.

The Bears should also be in great shape at wide receiver, with the unit being led by rising senior J.T. Palmer (39 rec, 460 yds, 5 TDs, 11.8 YPR). Palmer has had a pair of strong seasons since transferring in from Presbyterian prior to Mercer’s 2013 campaign.

Chandler Curtis (28 rec, 564 yds, 5 TDs, 20.1 YPG) and Avery Ward (15 rec, 278 yds, 3 TDs, 18.5 YPR) will join Palmer in helping the Bears field an athletic, fast corps of receivers this fall.

In addition to his abilities as a receiver, Curtis will enter the season as an All-America candidate as a return specialist after posting a strong season as a kick return threat for the Bears. He finished the season with a kick return for a score and a punt return for a score. Curtis led the SoCon, averaging an impressive 29.8 yards-per-return. Mercer also returns one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the SoCon, in Robert Brown (13 rec, 246 yds, 2 TDs, 18.9 YPR)

The Bears will once again utilize an odd front defense, which had its share of ups and downs on the defensive side of the football last season. The Bears still managed to finish fourth in the SoCon in the SoCon in total defense (379.9 YPG) as well as fourth in scoring defense (24.1 PPG).

The leading returnees on the defensive side of the ball are cornerback Alex Avant (58 tackles, 3 INTs) and linebacker Tyler Ward (104 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT). The best news for the Bears will be the return of safety/linebacker Tosin Aguebor, who would have headed into the 2014 season as All-America candidate, but suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp.

Lamb’s construction efforts in Macon enters its third season, and expect Mercer’s second season in the SoCon to be much better than its first, leaving Lamb and the Bears peachy keen.