Mercer offensive line preparing for tough test

The Mercer offensive line has taken on -- and passed -- several tests since the program restarted last season.

But the one awaiting the Bears’ offensive front this week might be its most difficult yet.

Mercer hosts Furman at 6 p.m. on Saturday in the Bears’ Southern Conference debut. Furman tied for the conference title last year and started this season with a 13-3 win over Gardner-Webb in a game that showcased the Paladins’ stingy defense.

“We’re so pumped about the challenge that is in front of us, and we’re really looking forward to it,” said Kirby Southard, a sophomore center from Alpharetta.

Southard and his starting line mates -- Thomas Marchman, Wilson Heres, Avery White and A.M. Posey -- know that challenge will be a difficult one.

But the Bears’ front has been up to the task through the team’s first 13 games. Mercer ran the ball well throughout the 2013 season on its way to a 10-2 finish, and the Bears rushed for 246 yards last week in the season opener against Reinhardt on Aug. 28.

“Every offensive lineman loves to run the ball and get down and dirty and try to force someone to go where they don’t want to go,” Southard said. “When you can do that at as a group, it’s a special feeling. It’s great to see our running backs run for so many yards and have so much success. We love that.”

What the Bears’ coaching staff had to love during the opener was the team’s offensive balance. The Bears also threw for 246 yards, but they will face a Paladins defense that allowed only 194 total yards (69 rushing) in its season opener.

“We had some growing pains, obviously,” Mercer offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Casey Vogt said of the opener. “You’re going to have that from year to year when you’re shuffling guys in and out. We have to continue to assert ourselves and be more physical as a unit; I think every offensive line coach would say that. I have challenged them on a week-to-week basis to create an identity of who we are.

“Furman is extremely disciplined. They don’t do a lot of movement and that type of stuff. They’re going to line up and say, ‘We’re better than you are and more physical than you are’ and try to stop you.”

That starts up front, which features a talented and experienced group for the Paladins.

Both defensive ends -- Gary Wilkins (6-foot-3, 240 pounds) and Ira McCune (6-3, 261) -- are seniors. Sophomore Jordan Hawkins (6-1, 290) and junior John Mackey (6-0, 263) start at defensive tackle.

“Furman presents a difficult challenge because they have two of the best ends in the league, two really good ends, and then they’re really stout in the middle,” Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb said. “They’re a four-down look, a 4-3. They have four defensive linemen, and they can all run; they’re all big, strong and quick. It’s going to be a difficult challenge for us.”