HERO Sports welcomes you to "Three-a-Days", where we will preview every single one of the 126 FCS programs, with three teams being released each day from June 17 to July 28. Then, we'll preview all 13 conferences from August 1-4. Today, we present … Mercer.
We'll leave no stone left unturned when it comes to giving the FCS diehards all they could ask for this offseason. Learn about every program in the country, with HERO Sports.
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MERCER (5-6 IN 2018)
The SoCon (Mercer was Tied for 5th in 2018)
COACH: Bobby Lamb – At School: 7th year (37-31 record), Overall: 16th year (104-71)
LAST FCS POSTSEASON: None
2018 OFFENSE: 30.6 ppg. (34th in FCS)
2018 DEFENSE: 32.5 ppg. (85th in FCS)
KEY GAME: Aug. 31 – at Western Carolina: With Mercer, we feel like we need an early litmus test. Last year, the Bears won this game in a shootout in Macon. This year, Mercer needs to get off on the right foot. It needs to find a way to at least "kind of" slow down WCU stud QB Tyrie Adams, and hope it can outscore the Catamounts with its offense. If Mercer does this, we feel like that could be the positive Karma this program needs to kick off a potential run to being in the SoCon mix and work its way into a potential FCS Playoff at-large berth (or more?). For the record … Mercer has won the last three matchups with WCU.
SUM IT UP: We feel like we're going to sound like a broken record here, and it kind of reminds us of how we'd described ETSU in past seasons. The potential is here for a young, restarted program to take the next step. Last year, that was ETSU. Could this year be Mercer's turn? Since moving full time to the SoCon in 2014 (after restarting football in 2013 after a 72-year hiatus), this program has never been bad. This has been a team that can play with the big boys and has hovered around .500 ball all five years in the league.
Last year, it beat ranked Samford and Walter Payton Award winner Devlin Hodges, and nearly knocked playoff-bound ETSU out of the playoff picture (three-point loss). The year before? Mercer fell by one point to the SoCon champs (Wofford), beat ranked The Citadel and WCU, and gave Auburn hell until a fourth-quarter Tigers' TD pushed a potential upset out of reach (ended 24-10). The program has also always scheduled "up", like scheduling a road trip to defending Ivy League champ Yale last year instead of scheduling an extra cream puff. For that? We give major props.
The offense looks to be in pretty good shape. The quarterback position has all kinds of talent and experience. Returnees Kaelin Riley, Robert Riddle and Harrison Frost all saw key time under center last year and all have seen their fair share of success. Incoming freshman Dylan Fromm (yes, he is a brother of Georgia QB Jake Fromm) is another intriguing part of this equation. Some FCS programs have zero talent at the QB position … Mercer has four talented quarterbacks. Behind — or should I say in front of — these QBs is an offensive line that has returning starter talent coming back at all O-line positions. Austin Sanders is a big-time talent at tackle and a potential All-American this fall, while Jake Flath, Conner Krieger, Brian Forrestal and Dawson Ellis are all returning starters. The run game, with returning leading rusher Tyler Devezin, could be a monster machine.
The defense was the problem, at least last year. Statistically, this unit gave up too many points to be competitive for the SoCon title. Five starters from last year's season finale with Furman have moved on, so there are holes to plug. Look, the Bears' defense doesn't necessarily have to fix everything overnight. The offense looks like it is going to score more points than it did last year (30.6 points per game) and it may come even more so from the run game, which will crunch the clock and help cure last year's serious problem with time of possession (109th in the FCS). The defense just needs to improve, not be the entire answer here. And lastly? This was a very good special teams unit in 2018, one of the best in the FCS. That always helps.
OUR TAKE: Could this be 2019's ETSU-like story out of the SoCon? Yes, it could. If the defense can reduce the points given up (32+ per game) down a touchdown's worth? Oh man, the potential. The Bears have a late-season game at the ACC's North Carolina in the non-conference schedule, and they didn't schedule a 12th game cream puff to rack up an easy win (scheduling tough seems like a trend with Mercer). Games with Austin Peay and Campbell at home are winnable in the non-conference schedule, but shouldn't be considered afterthought games. Having Wofford and Chattanooga at home in league play is a big plus. Could this program hit seven wins and get an at-large berth? Maybe so. But again, we think it comes down to September. That WCU game will be a battle.
The SoCon games at Furman, The Citadel and at ETSU aren't out of the realm of "win possibility" (honestly, which matchup in the SoCon is out of the realm of possibility? – They all seem like tossups). With only 11 games here, we think the ceiling is probably seven wins and a potential at-large playoff berth. Worst case scenario is probably in the range of a five-win finish. Coach Bobby Lamb has never coached a team to fewer than five victories and knows how to take a program to double-digit wins. That "tradition" won't end in 2019.
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COUNTDOWN: The Best Player in FCS Who Wears Each Number, 1-99
TOP RETURNEE: Sr./OL Austin Sanders (1st Team SoCon)
THE FOUNDATION: Jr./DB Malique Fleming (2nd Team SoCon – 7 tackles); Jr./RB Tyray Devezin (HERO Sports Sophomore All-American last year – 926 yards, 8 TDs); Soph./DB-RS-WR David Durden (HERO Sports Freshman All-American last year – 407 yds receiving, 23 ypc, 5 TDs, 27.6 yards per kick return, 1 TD); Soph./QB Robert Riddle (851 yds passing, 6 TDs; ); Jr./QB Kaelan Riley (1,234 yards passing, 12 TDs); Sr./LB Will Coneway (94 tackles – tops on team, 5.5 TFLs); Sr./DB Eric Jackson (55 tackles); Jr./DB B.J. Bohler (48 tackles); Sr./DL Dorian Kithcart (7.5 TFLs, 29 tackles); Sr./OL Jake Flath (3-year returning starter)
TOP NEWCOMER: Fr.,/DL Richard Benton (No. 7 FCS Signee according to HERO Sports Recruiting rankings – 17 FBS scholarship offers)
THE QUOTE: "Our goal is always to win a Southern Conference championship, which gives you a chance to win a national championship if you can get into the playoffs. We’ve been 4-4 in this league three years in a row. To be honest with you, we’ve had some very close games that could’ve gone either way, maybe go 6-2. And they proved it last year that if you go 6-2, you have a chance to win the league. We had three teams that were champions last year at 6-2. We feel like we are getting closer and closer. It will be a great day when we can win that first Southern Conference championship." — Head Coach Bobby Lamb told the Macon Telegraph
WERE WE RIGHT?: Last Year's Mercer Preview
FCS 2020 NFL PROSPECTS: The List
BEST FCS TRADITIONS: The List
PREVIEWS: The Rest Of The SoCon
SUBSCRIBE: HERO Sports FCS Podcast