The Bears are interesting this year after losing a class of seniors for the first time including stalwart QB John Russ and leading tackler Tyler Ward. Coach Lamb has steadily improved his team each year progressing from 1-6 in the SoCon in 2014 to a 4-4 record last year. Now comes the challenge of progressing from the middle of the pack to breaking into the upper echelon of the conference.
Mercer was solid offensively a year ago averaging 27 points per game. The departed leader, Russ is a good athlete, leading the team in rushing as well as passing so a lot of productivity must be replaced. The popular pick to replace Russ is R-Fr. Kaelan Riley (not confirmed in game notes for tomorrow’s opener) who has the size and mobility to be an outstanding player but lacks experience. Whoever takes the helm will lean on a talented group of backs led by Alex Lakes, Tee Mitchell, and former Georgia Tech RB CJ Leggett. The Bears also return a trio of experienced receivers in Chandler Curtis, Marquise Irvin, and Avery Ward. Perhaps the biggest question is replacing several offensive linemen who had played together for multiple seasons. There are talented guys on the roster with good size, but will have to mesh quickly with SoCon favorite Wofford coming in on September 9.
Defensively, Mercer had some problems a season ago especially defending the pass allowing a Southern Conference worst 252 yards per game. Only Eric Jackson returns in the secondary after starting as a redshirt-freshmen. The front seven had a little less attrition with 4 of 7 returning including linebackers Lee Bennett and LeMarkus Bailey who were active last year with 63 and 56 tackles respectively. Sophomore LB Will Coneway and speedy CB Stephen Houzah are among the favorites to step into starting roles in 2017. The Bears have recruited well the last few years, Mercer fans will be excited to see how that translates on the field.
I am a fan of Coach Lamb through his many years at Furman and beleive there are few better offensive coaches in the Southern Conference. If anyone can win with a freshman quarterback it’s Coach Lamb, but I the lack of experience in the defensive backfield is going to hurt the Bears again on pass defense. If Mercer can win the turnover battle and improve the pass rush they’ll be in a lot of games at the end. I wouldn’t be surprised with a 5-3 SoCon record, but I’m projecting 3-5 this year.