Bobby Lamb thinks his Mercer football program needs to “take the next step” in its second season in the Southern Conference.
And he likes the group that will lead the Bears as they attempt to do just that.
Mercer is 16-8 in its return to college football, including a 6-6 showing last year. The Bears finished 1-6 in the Southern Conference in their first season with scholarships after playing in the Pioneer League in 2013.
Now, the group that started together with the program, including a year with no games, is entering its junior season.
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“One of the negatives of starting a program is, ‘Who are your leaders?’ ” Lamb said. “Everybody is kind of on pins and needles and looking at each other to lead because you all came in at the same time. Now, over this two-and-half-year period, you can really see who your leaders are, and with the new classes coming in, they can lead those classes and tell them what to do and how everything goes.”
Lamb played and coached in the Southern Conference, but he knew last year would be a necessary growing period.
“You can tell them all you want to or show them tape all you want to, but until they experience going to Chattanooga and playing and going to VMI and playing and have schools come here to play, until you experience those things, you never know,” Lamb said. “Having been through the league now, they know what to expect, they know the size of the players, they know the strength of the players.”
Quarterback John Russ is one of the team’s leaders, and he has started all 24 games the Bears have played the past two seasons, throwing for more than 4,000 yards. He is looking forward to adding another recruiting class to the program, which will give the Bears more depth and more versatility.
Mercer played last year with 38 scholarship players -- its opponents had 63 -- but it will add 21 players in this year’s class and several players who redshirted last year.
“It was different because the first year we were all kind of the same age, and now we have the younger guys, and we have to show them how to do things and how Mercer works,” Russ said. “Our captains are doing a good job of showing these younger guys the Mercer way and helping them feel comfortable in our offense and defense.”
Junior linebacker Tyler Ward is comfortable in his role as a leader for the defense. He also has started every game and has recorded more than 100 tackles (101 in 2013 and 104 last year) in each season.
“It has flown by. Sometimes I still think of us all as freshmen,” Ward said with a smile. “We have grown up, and we have really matured as a team. The closeness with this group, the family feel, is just unreal. We all started out as freshmen, and we have been on the field together, and we have all the same experiences, and sitting here to say I’m a junior is crazy. It seems like I just got here, but it has been awesome.
“The leadership is a huge part of this team for the upcoming season. We have several guys who have taken that role and taken over that leadership on offense and defense.”
That group will try to help the team take the next step Lamb mentioned. Last year’s team lost five conference games by single digits.
“It’s a motivation and lets us know we have to do a little bit extra to win the ballgame,” Ward said. “We were strong enough, and we competed very well, but we have to learn how to win.”