Q: Your third year in the Southern Conference, where do you think this program is now and how you guys have been able to compete?
A: Well, we’re really excited about the year coming up. I think the one thing that we haven’t had the past two years in Southern Conference play is depth. We have depth at every position now. We have 19 starters coming back, I take that back, 20 starters coming back. We lost our starting left corner and a starting guard. And so we’ve got a lot of guys who have played some football. We have veterans. We have a senior class that’s ready to lead, and we have the depth behind them. So we’re excited about this season. We know it’s a long haul, and it’s going to start off with a bang with a conference game here on Thursday night, Sept. 1 versus The Citadel.
Q: You mention that senior class. You’ve had some seniors, but it’s the first real senior class that has been here and had key players who have done a lot for your team. It has to be neat to see that and see that kind of group wrapping up its career here.
A: It is really neat to see. These guys are guys that have actually played and competed on the field. And now they’re going to graduate with a great degree. And they helped start the program from scratch. You go down the list. John Russ, the quarterback, certainly has had an outstanding career. Some of the guys transferred in, like Bret Niederreither, Tripp Patterson, Zach Jackson all have transferred in, and they have fit in well with this class that we have. All in all, we’re going to miss them, but certainly we’re proud of what they have done for us over the four-year period.
Q: This year’s group, what does this year’s team have to do to take that next step in the SoCon? You’ve won games. You’ve competed. You’ve beaten a top-10 team. What do they need to do to take the next step for the program?
A: I really think we’ve got to go on the road and win some games. We’ve had success in the conference. We’ve had some success at home. But now we’ve been to every venue in the conference. We know what to expect. So the familiarity is going to help us, hopefully in our third trip through the Southern Conference. But we’ve got to be consistent, we’ve gotta be really consistent, and we’ve got to be consistent in finishing out games. We’ve finished some games. We’ve finished some big games, the big win over Chattanooga last year was huge the way we finished it. But there are other games we let slip. We’ve gotta finish those games and be more consistent through the entire year.
Q: I know it changes year to year, but the leadership of this team, what have you seen that you’ve liked from this group as you go through this summer?
A: It’s kind of unique situation. You take the senior class, and they just came in and started playing ball. They didn’t have anybody to lead them, and now they’re the leaders. So they really didn’t have a blueprint to tell them what to do. They have done a great job. We had a super spring term. No. 1, I’m proud that our team finished with a 3.11 team GPA. We had 62 guys with over 3.0, so it’s a class that’s done an outstanding job in the classroom and an outstanding job off the field in the spring term. We have great leadership. We have great competition. And it’s just carried over, and hopefully we’ll have a great summer.
Q: I know you don’t want to think about it yet, but this time next year, those guys will be gone. You’ve been with them from the start. That’s going to be, I’m sure, sad and bittersweet for you to see what they’ve been able to accomplish.
A: I’ve always said this about college coaching. You build a relationship for four years, and that fourth year hits you, and they’re out the door, and it’s like, “Oh gosh, where did the time go?” We’ve had some great times here. I’m proud of what they accomplished. They helped start the program. They were here practicing when there was no stadium, there was no weight room. So they have really seen it grow. They will always been a special class to me and our staff.
Q: The Southern Conference, you’ve been in the conference now for a couple of years. You knew the conference having been at Furman for so long. What do you think of the conference and the fit that it is for Mercer through the first couple of years?
A: Well, I think it’s a great fit for us. I said it when the doors opened up and we had the opportunity to get in there. We were the perfect fit for the Southern Conference. It’s a great balance of private schools and public schools and proximity-wise. The bottom line is from the proximity standpoint, you’re able to carry a fan base to a game. Last year, we went up to Furman, we carried our band, our cheerleaders. We took two or three student buses there. So those are the things you can do in the Southern Conference because of the proximity. And I think everybody has really elevated their game. Of course, you lose schools like Georgia Southern and (Appalachian) State, who are well-versed in football, and all of the sudden, everybody’s gotta elevate their game. The conference got two teams in the playoffs last year, and I look for two more to get in this year and maybe a third. So it’s an exciting time to be able to be a member of the Southern Conference.
Q: And now your non-conference schedule is going to ramp up. You’re going to play (Georgia) Tech. You’ve lined up games with Alabama, Auburn, Vanderbilt, other schools. How exciting is that for you and your program to take the next step with your schedule?
A: It’s another first for us, to play a BCS team, and of course, we’re going to play in Atlanta, right here kind of in our back yard with our campus being there in Atlanta. That will be a big game. I know there are a lot of people excited about that one. I get asked about that every day, and I’m like, “Oh you forget we do have a game with a team called The Citadel, which is a Southern Conference kickoff,” so we’ve got a lot of work to do. But there is a lot of excitement around the program because these games are on our schedule now.