Alex Lakes knows he can’t do his job as Mercer’s lead running back unless the men up front do theirs. He likes what he has seen so far from the Bears’ offensive line as Mercer prepares for the 2016 season.
“They have done a great job in camp,” said Lakes, who has run for 1,799 yards in his two seasons with the program. “We have (Bret) Niederreither and Kirby (Southard), those veteran guys up front, just leading everybody. As long as they jell together, that’s what makes our offense go. It starts with those guys up front.”
Southard and Niederreither are the two senior leaders on the offensive line. Southard has started every game for the program at center, while Niederreither transferred from Temple, and he moved to the offensive line last year after starting 10 games on the defensive line in 2014.
He started all 11 games last year at tackle.
“We have a lot of experience on the offensive line. We finally have our legs underneath us,” Southard said. “We’ve been playing together for a while. We know what’s going on. We’ve really stepped up leader-wise on the offensive line. We’ve tried to take command of the offense and realize it starts up front, it starts with us.”
The other starters are junior Thomas Marchman at tackle and guards Mitch Mathes, a sophomore, and Caleb Yates, a junior. Marchman and Yates both started 11 games last year, while Mathes played in eight. Marchman has started all 23 games of his Mercer career.
“There’s just kind of a sense of togetherness,” Niederreither said. “We’ve all been around the past couple of years, and we have a lot of experience; a lot of guys started games last year. We’re really just building on that and growing as a team. We’re just starting to kind of solidify as a team, and everything’s moving in the right direction.
“We have no doubt that we can go against the best defenses in the conference and the country at this level.”
That confidence is based on the production the Bears’ offense has had the past three seasons. Behind starting quarterback John Russ, Mercer averaged 412.9 yards per game last season — 212.5 yards rushing and 200.4 yards passing.
“We’re going to run the ball and protect John,” Southard said of the offense’s run-pass balance. “We’ve really tried to take control and ownership of the offense and really have tried to show that this year and that experience this year.
“It’s great for us. We love coming off the ball; we love firing off hard. Teams know that, so when we give them a little play-action pass or step back in the pocket, they kind of suck in a little bit, and that’s what we’re looking for. It feeds right into our game plan.”