What could have been: Three takeaways from Mercer football’s season

Mercer running back Tyray Devezin (34) finds enough running room in the Furman defense for a first-half first down.
Mercer running back Tyray Devezin (34) finds enough running room in the Furman defense for a first-half first down.

With its 35-30 loss on Senior Day to Furman, Mercer football finished 5-6 (4-4) for the second straight season. Here are three takeaways from a season that offered some potential after the first few games:

1. Offensive injuries hampered the team down the stretch.

Sometimes, it’s the players without pads who make the biggest difference. That was the case for Mercer football this season. Injuries overtook Mercer’s offense as the season progressed. Starting quarterback Robert Riddle went out in the fourth game. Backup Kaelan Riley played three games and then got injured in his fourth game. And starting running back Tee Mitchell was injured at the start of the eighth game.

“You don’t want to make excuses, and injuries are a part of the game,” head coach Bobby Lamb said. “The good news about injuries is you get young players game experience and they’ll be ready to go next year. The bad news is you miss a key player for a certain time.”

Once Riley went down, the Bears turned to redshirt freshman Harrison Frost for most of the remainder of the season. Without Mitchell — who was averaging 95 rushing yards a game — along with their first two quarterbacks, the Bears’ offense struggled. In the first seven games, Mercer averaged 419 yards per game. In the final four games, the Bears averaged 305 yards per game.

Despite the injuries, there is hope for the future. Riddle will return next season, and freshman wide receiver David Durden was a playmaker, scoring five touchdowns on 18 catches for the season and a kickoff return. Running back Tyray Devezin proved to be a potential bell-cow starter for Mercer in Mitchell’s absence, running for 117 yards per game in the last four contests. With those starts under his belt, Devezin said he’s ready to take on a full load next season.

“We’re super explosive,” Devezin said. “We’re going to be at the top of our conference — top in the country.”

2. Question marks linger on the defensive side of the ball.

Mercer’s defense this season was the worst it has been since the program was re-established. The Bears allowed opponents to score 32.5 points and accumulate 480.6 yards per game. The previous low marks were 28.9 points and 404 yards in 2016.

The Bears’ defense showed up in contests against ETSU (21 points), Chattanooga (9) and Jacksonville (3); but struggled to stop offenses in the other contests. Not only did the defense allow points, but it didn’t make many game-changing plays.

The Bears only had one defensive touchdown all year — in the final game against Furman. Mercer also forced only one safety, grabbed six interceptions and tabbed 12 sacks.

Mercer will have to figure out how to solve its defensive holes next season, and it will have to do so without four graduating starters: Isaiah Buehler, LeMarkus Bailey, Bradley Ernest and Kam Lott. Lamb said the team just has to do a good job of recruiting in order to replace those players.

“We’ve done a great job of recruiting,” Lamb said. “We have some guys who are ready to play. We managed the four games well this year [so] we got a lot of people redshirted, and they’ll be ready to go next year.”

3. Can Mercer escape the .500 season?

Since Mercer’s 10-2 inaugural season, the Bears have been stuck within a game of .500 every season: 6-6, 5-6, 6-5, 5-6 and now 5-6 in 2018. The records are similar but the stories change. In 2015 and 2016, the Bears were plagued by close losses.

Its first two seasons in the Southern Conference, Mercer competed but couldn’t finish tight contests. Mercer finished 4-4 in the conference in 2017 but struggled out of conference with games against teams such as Auburn and Alabama. In 2018, injuries plagued a team who had hopes of making a postseason run.

“Obviously, we’re really disappointed in that,” Lamb said. “We’ve been 4-4 three years in a row in the league, and we have to start stepping that number up and competing for the championship.”