The Mercer football team’s senior class has seen just about everything a group of players could expect in its time on campus.
From practicing before the program’s stadium was even completed to a 10-win debut in 2013 to moving to the Southern Conference in 2014, it has been an interesting trip for this year’s seniors. They will look to finish that ride in style in their final season, starting Sept. 1 against The Citadel.
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” linebacker Tosin Aguebor said. “About five years ago, I came into this thing, and now it’s about to be over. It just flew by, but I’m ready to get it started. It really has been a wild ride, but I wouldn’t change anything. It’s made us the best we can be, and I think this year we’re about to be really special.
“We’re really close. These guys are my brothers. We know what each other is going to do, and we’re with each other 24/7. It’s been five years. We’re as close as we can be.”
Aguebor is one of 30 seniors on this year’s roster, and several of those players have been with the program since its reboot in 2013. One of those is quarterback John Russ, who is one of the two players to start all 35 games for the program (center Kirby Southard is the other).
Mercer finished 10-2 in 2013 before beginning the transition to a scholarship program and moving to the Southern Conference in 2014, and the Bears finished 6-6, including 1-6 in conference play. Last year, the Bears were 5-6 overall and 2-5 in the conference.
“It’s a little weird with everything we have gone through with this program and this to be our last year,” Russ said. “It’s exciting, and we’re really looking forward to it. Practicing when there was no stadium, and everything we’ve gone through, it’s been a lot of fun, and now we’re hoping to wrap it up with a Southern Conference title. That’s all we’re focusing on.”
To do that, the Bears will have to be able to win close games, and that has been their downfall the past two seasons. Eight of Mercer’s 11 losses in conference play since joining the Southern Conference have been decided by single digits. But the program has continued to add depth with each recruiting class, and it has finished two cycles of full FCS recruiting classes.
“The competition every day in practice is nuts,” Southard said of the added depth and talent. “The more kids we have come in, the more talent we have come in. Practice is just like a game, honestly. There’s so much competition in practice. Everybody’s fighting, everybody’s pushing, pulling trying to get the best, trying to get the best of every day. So it really just brings out the best in everybody.”
While Russ and Southard are the only players to start all 35 games, four others have played in all 35: linebacker Tyler Ward, defensive end Kelly Brooks and defensive backs Mike Gray and Lendell Arnold. Linebacker Devin Davidson has played in 34, and wide receiver Josh Jones has played in 33.
“It’s crazy to believe it’s here already,” Ward, a former Tattnall Square standout, said of his senior season. “There’s been a lot of changes in the last four years. We go from not having a stadium to the Pioneer League to the Southern Conference and now trying to be a top contender in the Southern Conference.”
Sept. 1 The Citadel
Sept. 10 at Georgia Tech
Sept. 17 Tennessee Tech
Oct. 1 at VMI
Oct. 8 at Chattanooga
Oct. 15 Western Carolina
Oct. 22 at Austin Peay
Oct. 29 at Wofford
Nov. 5 East Tennessee State
Nov. 12 at Samford
Nov. 19 Furman