Mercer entered this season boasting the reigning Southern Conference Freshman of the Year. He passed for more than 2,000 yards and scored 17 total touchdowns. He helped lead the Bears to a near-upset of Auburn.
But he’s not the starter anymore.
That honor belongs to Robert Riddle now.
“We felt like Robert had performed better, so that’s why he started game three,” head coach Bobby Lamb said. “We were going to see how it went in game three in the first half, and the guy is 16-of-21 in the first half, making plays left and right.”
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Riddle’s performance — 316 yards on 23-of-34 passing, three total touchdowns and an interception — led Mercer to a 30-24 over No. 9-ranked Samford. It’s the first time Mercer has beaten Samford since joining the SoCon.
Kaelan Riley, the quarterback who won SoCon Freshman of the Year, started the opening contest against Memphis. Riddle came in to relieve him in the first quarter and has controlled most of the snaps since. Most considered Riley a lock to be the starter this season, but Riddle said entering spring practice, his mindset was to compete for the starting job.
“[Riley] had obviously been the SoCon Freshman of the Year, so I knew it was his team,” Riddle said. “I was just planning on competing so hard that I either beat him out or I just push him to make him a better player overall.”
Riddle said Lamb told him it was a 50-50 race. During the spring, Lamb said the staff evaluated the quarterback position, knowing that Riddle impressed as a freshman but just wasn’t ready to start after only two weeks of practice.
“[We] said, ‘Hey, we have two good quarterbacks,’” Lamb said. “We never did say this was a quarterback battle. We just said, ‘Hey, let’s let these guys get all the reps, and we’ll see what happens in the end.”
Now that riddle is solved.
The new quarterback attributed his early success to redshirting. He’s more physically developed. Watching from the sidelines gave him a perspective of how the defense reacts. And, most importantly, he’s recognizing coverages faster.
“That’s what I really needed to get better on,” Riddle said. “It’s slowed down the game for me and has made it a lot easier for me to make my reads and progressions faster in the passing game.”
Lamb saw his potential as a freshman and spoke highly of his pocket awareness and control of the offense. He also complimented him on his confidence, specifically noting his willingness to throw it down the middle of the field rather than stick to the sidelines. That type of confidence is something Riddle said is key for a signal caller.
“When you play quarterback, you have to have the mindset that you have to make everyone who is on the offense believe that you can win for them,” Riddle said. “That’s the mindset I went in having. I may not have been the starter last year, but I’m going to go in telling these guys we’re about to drive down the field and put it in the end zone.”