The Mercer Bears will kick off their season in just over a month. The team will be looking for some players to step if they have hopes of winning their first Southern Conference title and clinching a spot in the playoffs.
While some players like running back Tyray Devezin, quarterback Robert Riddle and offensive lineman Austin Sanders are already becoming household names, there are a lot of impact players on the team who can potentially step into the spotlight with a big season.
1. Dorian Kithcart, Senior Defensive Lineman
Last season, Kithcart racked up a career-high 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He is a big body that clogs the lane and allows other guys to get to the ball carrier in the backfield.
He also had a big impact with 7.5 tackles for a loss on the season.Those are huge over the course of a game as it puts the opposing offense in a tougher position to reach the first down marker.
He will be the heart and soul of this defensive line this season, he could be one of the key vocal leaders on and off the field for the entire team.
If Kithcart can once again contribute career-highs in tackles and sacks while staying healthy for the full season, he could earn a spot on one of the all-conference teams.
2. David Durden, Sophomore Wide Receiver
Durden was a member of the Boston Red Sox farm system before leaving the diamond for the gridiron but he still managed to be the Bears’ home run hitter all season long. He had five touchdowns and 407 yards receiving and completed that with very few opportunities. He only caught 18 passes last season but routinely turned them into huge plays.
This was largely due to playing second fiddle to Marquise Irvin and Stephan Houzah. Both have since graduated. The depth chart should be wide open for Durden to take over the no. 1 option in the offense.
He also scored by routinely flipping the field with long kickoff returns. He caught five touchdowns, threw one touchdown and set a school record with a 95-yard kickoff return.
3. Malique Fleming, Junior Safety
This is a guy who puts fear into opposing wide receivers coming across the middle. He has forced four fumbles over his two seasons as the Bears safety.
He is a heavy hitter who will make you think twice about coming in his direction, even if you manage to hang onto the ball. He had 77 tackles last season, 25 more than the season before.
He has also been a big part of the team’s pass coverage. Fleming had six pass breakups and one interception in the last two seasons with the Bears.
Fleming picked up a second-team All-SoCon honor last season.
4. Will Coneway, Senior Linebacker
Last season was a true breakout campaign for the linebacker out of Washington County. He recorded a team-high 94 tackles and finished fifth in the SoCon in tackles per game with 8.5.
He is on his way to being one of the best defenders in the school’s history. He became just the fifth Bears player ever to reach 200 tackles in his career. He still has one year left to improve on that number.
He has a nose for the ball and seems to know exactly where to be at any given time to make a stop when the Bears need it.
Mercer will need a large improvement out of a defensive unit that, at times, couldn’t get off the field late in games. Coneway will be the key catalyst for this improvement.
5. Jake Flath, Senior Guard
Flath’s teammate Austin Sanders gets a lot of the attention on the offensive line — and for good reason. But Flath also deserves some credit.
The Bears have finished in the top five nationally in red zone offense over the past two seasons. This is a direct result of good play across the offensive line. Mercer averaged 146 yards rushing and 231 yards passing per game a season ago.
Those numbers should rise this season as long as the offensive line can stay healthy, continue to open up holes on the ground and protect the passer at a better rate this season.
Keeping Riddle upright will be their priority this year. Far too often, the pass rush exploited this unit in the past.
Flath will need to be one of the senior leaders of this group and could find himself alongside Sanders on one of the All-Conference teams.