Entering its third season -- and its second season in the Southern Conference -- it makes sense that the Mercer team has plenty of returning key pieces.
That’s the good news.
The bad news for Bobby Lamb and the Bears is that most of the conference’s teams are in the same situation.
“When you read everyone’s bio, it’s 19 starters here and 20 starters here and maybe 16 or 17 at another place,” Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb said. “It’s what I would call a retention year with a lot of people coming back, and specifically there are a lot of starting quarterbacks coming back. When you have a starting quarterback who has had a year or two to cut his teeth, the next year is a pretty tough deal right there for all the defenses in the league.
“We have everybody back pretty much, but I have never seen so many people have so many players back. Either it’s a senior-laden year, or they just have a lot of good players coming back.”
The Bears finished 6-6 overall last season and were 1-6 in their Southern Conference debut. But only two of those conference losses came by double digits as the Bears came up short in the fourth quarter time after time.
That’s a motivation for this year’s team.
“We saw what it takes to be in the game last year, and now we have to find out what it takes to win the game,” junior linebacker Tyler Ward said. “We have to take that next step and go a little further. We were prepared last year, but in the fourth quarter, we just couldn’t get over that hump to win more games.”
Even with all their returning players, the season could be a challenge for the Bears because the rest of the conference looks to be improved.
Chattanooga won last year’s conference title with an undefeated record but has the fewest returning starters in the conference: four each on offense and defense. One of those, however, is standout quarterback Jacob Huesman. Western Carolina took a big step forward last year to finish tied for second with Samford. The Catamounts return 11 starters on offense and 10 on defense, while the Bulldogs have seven on each side of the ball in Macon native Chris Hatcher’s first season as head coach.
Wofford finished 4-3 in conference play last year but returns 10 starters on offense and nine on defense, while the conference’s other three teams also have plenty back: The Citadel (10 on offense, six on defense); Furman (eight on offense and defense); and VMI (nine on offense, seven on defense).
“A lot of those close losses last year, I expect us to turn those into wins,” sophomore running back Tee Mitchell said. “Most definitely, our first year in the SoCon to be in those close games, it was frustrating to lose them. But now we come back more experienced and a year older, and we feel like we can win those games now, and that’s just motivating us.
“When you go back and look at it and look at the particulars on the film, you see we can be in position to win those games this year.”
Not only will the Bears have more familiarity with the conference, they have increased their number of scholarships from 38 to 53. And they do have just about everyone back from last year.
“The most important thing I’ve noticed out here is that we’re a year older and more experienced, and we have more depth with these freshmen coming in here, and that’s just going to make us that much better,” junior quarterback John Russ said. “This is the first time we’ve played the same teams in back to back years. We know the other teams and what they want to do. There are a few coaching changes, but that’s it, so we know what it takes and who those other teams are.”
ABOUT THE MERCER BEARS
Head coach: Bobby Lamb (83-48 in 11 seasons overall; 16-8 in two seasons at Mercer).
2014 record: 6-6, 1-6 Southern Conference.
Returning offensive starters: Thomas Marchman (Soph., T); Wilson Heres (Sr., G); Kirby Southard (Jr., C); Robert Brown (Jr., TE); Alex Lakes (Soph., RB); John Russ (Jr., QB); Josh Jones (Jr., WR).
Returning defensive starters: Austin Barrett (Soph., NT); Tyler Ward (Jr., LB); Alex Avant (Sr., CB); Lendell Arnold (Jr., SS); Jeremy James (Soph., CB).
Three keys to success: 1. The Bears are hoping to get continued growth on the offensive and defensive lines as they add more scholarship players.
2. More depth and talent from past two recruiting classes also will be important with those added scholarships.
3. The roster is filled with plenty of offensive and defensive playmakers.
Sept. 5 at Austin Peay
Sept. 12 Stetson
Sept. 19 at Tennessee Tech
Oct. 3 Wofford
Oct. 10 at Western Carolina
Oct. 17 East Tennessee State
Oct. 24 VMI
Oct. 31 at The Citadel
Nov. 7 Chattanooga
Nov. 14 at Furman
Nov. 21 Samford