GREENVILLE, S.C.–Season one down for the Mercer Bears and so far so good for the small private school in middle Georgia, as Bobby Lamb did something that probably even surprised him–leading Mercer to a 10-2 overall record and a 6-2 mark in the Pioneer League.
Lamb, who spent 29 years at as a player, assistant coach and head coach at a similar small private school, Furman, and was a big part of the Paladins’ tradition as both player and coach.
In fact, Lamb was a part of more than half of Furman’s Southern Conference standard 13 SoCon titles, and the 2013 title season was the first since 1982 that Lamb was not a part of in Greenville.
There were a lot of kids that Lamb wanted to get when he was at Furman, but simply could not get into the program with the ever-increasing academic standards and an unwillingness to acquiesce the football staff or any of the athletic programs at Furman, which is a policy that has since changed at the Greenville, S.C.-based school.
One of those players was former standout CB Buster Skrine, who wanted to come to Furman and had what would be a good academic standing to most schools, however, it did not meet Furman’s requirements at the time. Skrine went on to be an All-SoCon talent and just completed his third season in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns. Skrine ended up at Chattanooga, where he was one of the top lock-down CBs in the SoCon, and his speed made him a threat as a return man.
But while Furman was dusting off league title No. 13 in 2013 and getting back to the postseason for the first time since Lamb was the head coach, Mercer was busy resurrecting its program on the gridiron for the first time in a little over seven decades. The job Lamb did at Mercer in 2013 did as a head coach could be argued was the best during his 10 years as a head football coach.
Mercer’s story was nothing short of remarkable, as a team that lacked any full scholarship players, and while the Bears didn’t play what would be considered top-notch competition, the 2013 season was more about establishing confidence rather than anything else, and that was exactly what happened.
Just like Lamb was able to do at Furman, he was also able to procure a pretty good talent under center, in redshirt freshman Jordan Russ (121-of-233 passing, 1,916 yds, 21 TDs, 7 INTs). In 12 games in his first season, Russ had 33 TD responsibilities (21 passing, 12 rushing).
Russ was also an excellent rushing threat, posting 903 yards and 12 scores. Russ is very reminiscent of Chattanooga quarterback Jacob Huesman, who put up similar numbers in his freshman season, who passed for 1,712 yards and 904 yards, combining for 21 total TD responsibilities (13 passing, 8 rushing).
Russ, an excellent decision maker, also displayed the type of similar characteristics to former Paladin quarterback Frankie DeBusk, who under Lamb’s tutelage flourished to lead the school to its only national title and helped Furman become the first Division I FCS private school program to win a national title.
The second phase is already well underway for Lamb and his staff, which is going up against the rest of the Southern Conference on the recruiting trail, and if there’s an area where Lamb and staff excels more than any other, it’s the recruiting trail. It has a lot to do with Lamb’s personality–a personable charismatic man who genuinely cares about the entire person, and not just the football player, which is evident in in-home visits.
The Bears have already made some noise on the recruiting trail, and one of the players to keep an eye on in 2014 will be LeMarkus Bailey, who flip-flopped between Mercer and Furman, before finally deciding on Lamb and the Bears on Jan. 23, according to SoConRecruiting.com. Bailey might end up being one of the best defensive recruits in the Southern Conference. Bailey was recruited by the likes of East Carolina and Middle Tennessee State, but chose Mercer.
Bailey was a standout at Hillgrove High School in Hillgove, GA, and the 5-11, 180-pound defensive back has enough athleticism to play either corner or safety, but most likely will find himself as corner for the Bears in 2014. Bailey, who will remind some Furman fans of former Furman cornerback Ryan Steed. Athletic and fast, he will be an immediate impact player for the Bears.
Another solid addition in the defensive backfield for the Bears will be Zach Jackson, who transferred into Macon from TCU where he was a three-star recruit coming out of high school. The 6-0, 200-pound safety is a player that possesses 4.4-speed in the forty, and it is interesting to see the defensive backfield as being one of the key areas addressed as the Bears enter the Southern Conference.
Of course, Lamb and the Bears aren’t the only new teams participating in Southern Conference Signing Day 2014, as both East Tennessee State and VMI will also be taking part in Signing Day as new conference members this fall. Both were former members, with VMI being asked to leave the league in 2002, while East Tennessee State could not afford to support its football program and played its final season in the league in 2003, before deciding to resurrect the program in 2013, with the help of former Tennessee Volunteer head coach Phillip Fulmer.
The Bucs had a decent legacy as a Southern Conference member in their previous stint as a league member, with the best season for the Bucs having been the 1996 season, which saw ETSU win 10 games for the first time in school history, finishing second in the SoCon and lost only once in Southern Conference play, which was a 45-14 a Randy Moss-led Marshall team. That team was led by Mike Cavan, and the newest crop of Bucs will be led by former North Carolina head coach Carl Torbush.
The Bucs will sign a huge class as one might expect, and with an upgrade in facilities, and with the experience and name that Torbush provides, the Bucs will bring in a solid class. According to SoConRecruiting.com, the Bucs already had 45 verbals on the morning of signing, which will likely increase a little more as the day goes on.
One of the players to keep an eye on for the Bucs early in his career is JaJuan Stinson, who rushed for 912 yards and had 217 yards receiving, with a total of 12 TDs. He was the 3-AAA Specialist of the Year selection during his time at Knoxville Central High School. Stinson is a player that possesses 4.4 speed and could be an impact player right away for the Bucs.
It is clear that Torbush has addressed speed and on the defensive side of the football, linebacker Trey Trammel is another player that has plenty of that, posting 4.4-speed in the forty-yard dash coming in. The 5-9, 185-pound LB played his high school football at Dobyns-Bennett High School.
ETSU will not begin play in the Southern Conference member until 2015, so it will be another year to sit back and wait for Torbush and his team, but it appears the Bucs are building a solid program in the Tri-Cities once again.
VMI has struggled as much as any football program in the FCS in recent memory, but Sparky Woods has traditionally recruited well to Lexington, VA, given the limited resources he has been provided with over his six seasons in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. Much like Lamb, Woods is in his second stint in the Southern Conference at a different school, having led Appalachian State to the program’s first two Southern Conference titles in 1986 and ’87. Obviously, almost three decades later, things have been a little bit more difficult at VMI.
The Keydets were members of the Southern Conference previously from (1921-2002) and were a charter member in football, boasting some good players over the years, despite not having all that much success. Players like Thomas Haskins, who still ranks in the SoCon in the Top 1o in rushing.
Despite their struggles as a Southern Conference member in the past, the Keydets posted two of the biggest upsets in Southern Conference history, with a win over Appalachian State in 1994 preventing Appalachian State from sharing the SoCon title, and a win over Wofford in 2002 preventing the Terriers from making their first ever FCS playoff appearance.
The Keydets have concentrated on the offensive and defensive lines in this current class, but the highlight of the class might be at running back where the Keydets bring in Brice Tucker out of Bishop Sullivan High School in Virginia Beach, VA, will bring speed and plenty of it, having been clocked at 4.43 in the forty-yard dash.
The 6-0, 170-pound running back rushed for 876 yards and Tucker is another example of that speed coming out of the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, which of course produced the likes of Michael Vick and Ronald Curry, and Tucker’s speed allowed to average nearly nine yards per carry as a senior.
On the defensive side of the football, safety Gabe Sutherland was a two-way performer during his time at McLean High School. Sutherland will play safety at VMI, and one of the things coach Woods likes about Sutherland is he is fundamentally sound and has good technique when it comes to tackling, posting over 100 tackles as a senior. The Keydets will play their first Southern Conference game in 12 years on Sept. 20 when the Keydets
As Feb. 5 is for Mercer, ETSU and VMI, it could be a defining day
Furman, Chattanooga and Samford did a nice job of addressing needs going into the recruiting season. Of those three teams, it’s obvious that Samford has the most to replace of the three teams that tied for the Southern Conference title, losing players of the ilk of quarterback Andy Summerlin under center, as well as Fabian Truss, who was one of the top all-purpose players in SouthernConference history
Chattanooga had to address a few more needs than originally anticipated as a result of some off-season dismissals, which included wide receiver and backup quarterback Terrell Robinson, while the Mocs also bid farewell to running back Kendrix Huitt, as both were key contributors during the Mocs’ first Southern Conference title run since 1984.
While Jacob Huesman will head into his third season as the Mocs’ starter in 2014, the Mocs did receive a commitment from a solid signal-caller, in Penny Smith, who commits to the Mocs out of Fulton High School in Atlanta.
Smith ran a similar offense as the one he will be leading at Chattanooga, and he has good speed, clocked at 4.5 in the forty-yard dash. Smith claimed a pair of state titles, and passed for better than 4,000 yards while rushing for nearly 500 yards.
Smith has a great arm, and maybe even a little better arm than current signal-caller Huesman, but is also an excellent runner and was also recruited by East Tennessee State among others.
Furman’s QB signee P.J. Blazejowski is one to watch, possessing good speed, and throws well on the run. The diamond in the rough find for the Paladins might be Antonio Wilcox, who was a pleasant surprise on signing day. New Hampshire and Arkansas State were both heavily involved in the recruiting process, but Blazejowski chose Furman.
Samford had plenty to address, but the No. 1 concern for the reigning champs was QB–a position head coach Pat Sullivan should know just a thing or two about, having won a Heisman Trophy at Auburn. The big get for Sullivan is obviously Michael Eubank, who transfers from Tempe to Birmingham, as he spent two years at Arizona State. The 6-5, 240-pound QB is an instant impact player, but probably not as high-profile of a transfer as say Furman’s Ingle Martin or even Chris Forcier back in the mid and late 2000′s.
Wofford signed 16 in its 2014 class, with Greenville, S.C., product Andrew Stoddard out of St. Joseph’s High School where he rushed for 7,394 yards and 111 TDs during his career. Stoddard, a 5-11, 220-pound fullback is a good combination of power and speed, while fellow running back Chase Nelson should also bolster what Mike Ayers hopes will be an even more improved offensive backfield in 2013. The 5-10, 225-pound product of Alpharetta, GA, played his prep football at Chattahoochee High School where he rushed for 3,235 yards on 425 carries with 33 touchdowns. He averaged an impressive 7.6 YPC.
Western Carolina brought 19 new faces to its program on Wednesday, as head coach Mark Speir enters his third season at the helm in Cullowhee. Hardy is a 5-11, 175-pound native of Vidalia, GA, and was recruited to Western as an athlete.
Hardy was named the Atlanta Journal Constitution AA All-State team and the 2-AA Offensive Player of the Year, and was a factor on both sides of the football, as you might imagine with such athleticism, during his time as a prep. He rushed for 1,672 yards and 24 touchdowns, while adding a 90-yard INT return for a score in his senior season. Hardy is a player that will have the opportunity to play right from the start.
The Citadel has a new head coach, in Mike Houston, and he has quite a chore ahead of him–having to replace the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback and running back, who were two of the top two runners in the league.
One of those players that will have a chance to compete for that quarterback job is Jalen Lampkin, who comes to The Citadel from Augusta, GA, where he was a two-sport star, as he was also a standout on the diamond at Westside High School. In Lampkin’s senior season, he passed for 910 yards and rushed for 800 with 20 total touchdowns, which included eight through the air and 12 via the ground. Lugoff-Elgin QB Shon Belton expects to compete with Lampkin after rushing for 1,278 yards and rushing for 726 yards, with 18 TD responsibilities (14-rushing, 4-passing) as a senior.
Rank: Player To Watch:
1. Chattanooga RB Richandre Bagley
2. Mercer CB LeMarkus Bailey
3. Samford QB Michael Eubank
4. Furman QB P.J. Blazejowski
5. East Tennessee State RB JaJuan Stinson
6. Western Carolina ATH Tra Hardy
7. Wofford RB Andre Stoddard
8. The Citadel QB Jalen Lampkin
9. VMI RB Brice Tucker
SoCon All-Time Greats:
Adrian Peterson–Georgia Southern (RS-FR 1998 from University of Florida)
Jerome Felton–Furman (GS-FR 2004 from Vanderbilt)
Louis Ivory–Furman (FR 1998 from Peach County HS)
Armanti Edwards–Appalachian State (FR 2006 from Greenwood HS)
Randy Moss–Marshall (RS-FR 1996 from Florida State/Notre Dame)
Terrell Owens–Chattanooga (RS-FR 1993 from Benjamin Russell High School)