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Growth continues for Mercer offensive line

Casey Vogt has an easy way to figure out the experience level and expectations for his offensive line entering each season.

He simply checks out his players’ facial hair.

More hair means more experience. And that leads to heightened expectations.

The Mercer offensive line has plenty of hair, experience and expectations for the upcoming season. The Bears are on the road against Austin Peay on Sept. 5.

“I always joke as a line coach, I look around, and when there’s facial hair, things are good,” Vogt said. “Right now, all five of them have to shave, and that’s a good thing for us after having a bunch of young guys. They have really matured now and taken a leadership role where we have not had that in years past.”

That leadership starts with junior Kirby Southard at center and senior Wilson Heres at left guard. Southard has started every game the past two years, while Heres started all 12 games in 2013 and played in nine last year in an injury-filled season.

The other starters are sophomore Thomas Marchman at left tackle, sophomore Caleb Yates at right guard and junior Bret Niederreither at right tackle. Marchman started all 12 games last year as a true freshman, while Niederreither moved over from defense this offseason.

“We have a lot of great chemistry, and we have a lot more experience on the offensive line,” Southard said. “We have been together now, and we understand each other better. As it builds each year, we get better. We have a lot of momentum coming into the year, and we had a good scrimmage (Aug. 22). I think that really showed us what we can do as an offensive line and what we can be.”

Heres is one of the three seniors on the Mercer roster. He said the Bears are driven by last year’s many close losses in their first season in the Southern Conference. Mercer went 1-6, with five of those losses coming by single digits.

“You come in and play, and then boom, it’s almost over,” Heres said of his career. “It’s hard to believe it goes that fast, but I think we have a chance to do big things. We were so close last year. We were so close against some good teams, Western Carolina, Chattanooga, Citadel, all those guys; we were just one or two plays away from breaking it open. This year, that’s bulletin board material for us, to finish the drill and finish the games.”

Vogt, who is also Mercer’s offensive coordinator, said he can see the difference in his line entering this season, which is the program’s third since its return.

“They’re bigger, they’re stronger, they’re more physical, they’re hungrier than last year,” he said. “Last year, playing in the Southern Conference for the first year, we were just kind of hoping to stay in games. Now, they’re hungry and see we can win these games. I think that was the biggest thing in the offseason and in spring ball, ‘Hey, we lost close games, and we have to find a way to win those close games.’ ”

The Bears are banking on added depth on their offensive line to help them win more games. The second group on the offensive line is made up of junior Mitch Payne (left tackle), redshirt freshman Zac Rice at left guard, junior Sam Arrington at center, junior Avery White at right guard and true freshman Mitch Mathes at right tackle.

Payne made 12 starts in 2013 at right tackle but missed last year with an injury, while White has made 23 starts the past two seasons.

“There has been some really good competition, and competition has made us better as a whole,” Vogt said. “We’re deeper and more experienced than we have been in years past.”

Quarterback John Russ likes what he has seen from the group in the preseason. The Bears averaged 32.5 points and 401 yards per game last year, and Russ thinks Mercer can improve on both of those numbers this season.

“They’re meshing really well together,” Russ said. “This is our third year playing in the system, and they’re continuing to grow. We were playing two freshmen there last year, and now we have more experience, and we have redshirt juniors and a senior, so having that experience is going to help us a lot.”

There is a tight bond within the group, and that should help it continue to improve and work its way through the season.

“We’re more than just an offensive line,” Southard said. “We’re like a little family with everything we have going on. It’s more than we’re just going to see each other at practice. We’re together off the field, and we’re going to get something to eat and hang out Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights and all be together. It’s more of a family and brotherhood instead of just coming to practice and seeing each other here.

“And we’re really looking forward to this season and seeing what we can do.”