Mercer coach Bobby Lamb, left, led the Bears to an NCAA-record 10-2 mark last year in the program’s first season since 1941. Lamb said the Bears’ initiation into the Southern Conference this fall will be challenging. (Mercer University/Special to The Herald)
MACON — Bobby Lamb never dreamed his start-up Mercer football team would soar so high, so quickly.
Now the Bears’ coach is hoping his team can shock him again.
One year after a stunning 10-2 record in its first season since 1941, Mercer is ready for year No. 2 and its debut in the Southern Conference, and Lamb — who admittedly didn’t have high expectations for the 2013 season — isn’t ruling out another marvel of a season.
“I had no idea we could do that in year one,” Lamb said at Tuesday’s Peach State Pigskin Preview. “My anticipation last year was maybe 6-6 at best. I was wrong last year, and I hope I’m wrong again.”
The Bears have a challenge ahead of them as they move out of the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League and into the SoCon, where they will try to keep up with established Division I programs like Samford, Furman and Chattanooga.
Lamb said the most challenging part about the move will be the speed among SoCon teams.
“I think that will be the biggest difference between our league last year and the Southern Conference,” he said. “This year is going to be a measuring stick year for us because we are trying to measure our program against other Southern Conference programs.”
Mercer, which is slowly building its way up to the FCS-limit 63 scholarships, signed its first scholarship class this year, and Lamb said it wasn’t difficult to convince recruits to jump on board.
“On Dec. 1 we went out and recruited with 10 wins in our pocket, an NCAA record (for most wins by a first-year program) in our pocket and scholarship money for the first time in our pocket,” Lamb said. “It was a really good December for the Bears.”
The 2014 signing class reports June 22 for summer school, and the Bears open the season Aug. 28 at home against Reinhardt. Season tickets are already sold out — an indicator of the excitement surrounding a program that all of Georgia is keeping an eye on.
“We have a great excitement level,” Lamb said. “Our stadium sold out again last week, and we have a tremendous atmosphere for young men to come in and play.”
PAINE STARTING UP, TOO: Paine College is hoping some of that new-program fire spreads over to Augusta, where the Lions are returning to Division II football and will play a full SIAC schedule this season.
Paine hasn’t fielded a team in more than 50 years, and other in-state SIAC coaches said they have already felt the effects of the Lions’ return to the gridiron.
“Kids like to be a part of something different and to be with an upstart program, so we have been losing quite a bit of kids to them,” Morehouse coach Rich Freeman said. “I think right away, they should come in and be a viable candidate in our conference.”
Paine had a club team last year that went 3-1 and will play its first Division II game since 1962 when it travels to Shorter for a Sept. 4 season opener. The Lions host Albany State on Oct. 4 in a matchup that will bring ASU coach Mike White back to his hometown of Augusta.
The Lions also host SIAC foe Morehouse, and Freeman believes Paine coach Greg Ruffin — who helped resurrect the Shaw (N.C.) University football program in 2002 — is the perfect figurehead for a start-up team.
“(Ruffin) is one of those guys who knows how to crawl under the rocks and find players,” Freeman said. “I’m pretty sure it will be a competitive ball game when we play them.”
Fort Valley State assistant coach Keithen LaGrate also said on Tuesday that Paine has been a serious contender on the recruiting trail.
“We know they have stockpiled some kids that we wanted if we could get them,” LaGrate said. “They got them, so we know they are going to be tough.”
SOUTHWEST GEORGIA TALENT AT GMC: Since 1995, 37 former Georgia Military College players have made it to the NFL.
A trio of ex-Southwest Georgia prep stars are hoping to add to that number.
Former Albany High quarterback Emanuel Byrd, Westover linebacker Brenton Wimberly and Early County offensive lineman Shaquille Powell will be in the mix this fall for the Bulldogs, and GMC coach Bert Williams said all three will get at least a shot at a starting position.
Byrd, who threw for a combined 3,320 yards and 37 TDs in two years for Albany High, was a backup last year at GMC as a freshman but has emerged as the No. 1 signal caller after spring practices.
Williams said the starting job is his to lose.
“He had a good spring and is a big, athletic body who can play several places,” Williams said. “He turned down some Division I secondary offers because he wanted a shot to play quarterback. He has been great in school, and he will be moving somewhere in December. He has a couple of Division I offers right now.”
Powell didn’t see many snaps last year as a freshmen, but the athletic lineman — who was a two-time All-Region 1-AA player, a three-year starter and a big reason Early County reached the Elite 8 in the 2012 Class AA state playoffs — should start at guard this fall.
“Shaq is really quick and generates a lot of pop when he gets there,” Williams said. “We really polished him up in the spring, and he really got comfortable doing what we were doing offensively. He didn’t play very much last year, but we are looking forward to him being one of the starters going into the fall.”
Wimberly played defensive end last year for the Patriots and was second in the state in sacks with 20 and also finished with 88 tackles and 38 tackles for loss. But he has aspirations of playing at the Division I level in two years, and with his 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame, he will need to do so as a linebacker.
GMC returns just one starting linebacker from last season’s team, giving Wimberly an opportunity to hit the ground running in his new position.
“He will have a good chance to be on the field a bunch this fall,” Williams said.