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Mercer Older, Wiser

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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After taking notes in year one of scholarship football, the Bears appear ready for a bigger test in 2015.

This young program made a statement playing a full season without a single senior, and just a handful of juniors, on its roster.

Last season was a learning experience for Bobby Lamb and the Mercer. The Bears, in their Southern Conference debut, went 6-6, but won just one league game. Four conference defeats came by a mere touchdown or less, however; Mercer played the SoCon's top two teams, Chattanooga and Samford, within one score each on the road. Even as they adjusted to a new brand of football, the Bears finished second in the league in scoring offense and fourth in scoring defense. Mercer ranked in the top 25 in the FCS in average attendance.

This young program made a statement playing a full season without a single senior, and just a handful of juniors, on its roster. After taking notes in year one of scholarship football, the Bears appear ready for a bigger test in 2015. The numbers are growing. The excitement is in place. Encore expectations are high.

Lamb and staff boast one of the nation's best backfields in quarterback John Russ and running back Alex Lakes. Russ, just a junior, has already scored 57 total touchdowns. He was a 2013 finalist for the Jerry Rice Award, given to the nation's most outstanding freshman. Lakes earned the same distinction last fall, as he led the SoCon with 1,107 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns in his first year. 

Another dynamic talent, All-American specialist Chandler Curtis was also a finalist for the impressive honor. With four touchdown returns in 2014, Curtis is one of the game's most exciting players.  

The return of the aforementioned playmakers, along with several key linemen, should help give Mercer one of the top offensive units in the country. Even with a number of underclassmen playing prominent roles, the Bears averaged nearly 33 points per game a year ago. Mercer, Chattanooga and Samford were the only teams to rank in the top five in both passing and rushing offense; the Mocs and Bulldogs went a combined 13-2 in conference play.

"We have a really good quarterback in John Russ, who makes good decisions with the ball. Alex Lakes is a big bruising back, who had 100 yards again today which is becoming a habit for him. We also had some skill guys like Robert Brown, Chandler Curtis and J.T. Palmer come up with some big plays," Lamb explained after a 38-31 loss to UTC.      

Defensively, the Bears had especially solid efforts against Furman and Samford and shutout Stetson. Zach Jackson recorded a late game-saving interception as Mercer recorded its first league win ever in a 27-24 thriller at Virginia Military Institute.

"Our defense was phenomenal in the first half, they forced three turnovers and the two touchdowns only came after we gave them a short field," Lamb added after the historic victory. "Our secondary made some phenomenal plays, but Zach made the biggest play of all on that last interception. I was proud of our whole team for bending, but not breaking." 

Linebacker Tyler Ward is one of the conference's most productive defenders. Lineman Austin Barrett and linebacker Kyle Williams are back after earning SoCon All-Freshman honors.

Experience is a trait the Bears have had to earn quite deliberately. A year older and wiser, the goal now is contention in one of college football's most tradition-rich leagues.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports