2023 Mercer Football Preview

Mercer football anticipates a thrilling 2023 season, driven by QB Peevy, potent offense, and a formidable defense with experienced starters.

Mercer QB Carter Peevy
Source: Mercer Athletics

Team Overview

Head Coach: Drew Cronic (19-13/4th yr)

2022 Record: 7-4 overall, 5-3 T-3rd in SoCon

Returning Starters: 20

Offensive Starters: 9

Defensive Starters: 10

Special Teams: 1

Players To Watch Offense

  • QB Carter Peevy (3-of-5 passing, 38 yds, 1 INT)
  • Devron Harper (78 rec, 987 yds, 10 TDs, 12.6 YPR, 1,878 all-purpose yards)
  • Ty James (52 rec, 1,105 yds, 13 TDs, 21.2 YPR)
  • OL, Riley Adcock
  • OL Nate Howard
  • OL John Thomas
  • RB Al Wooten II (130 rush att, 495 yds, 4 TDs, 3.8 YPC)
  • WR/A-back Parker Wroble (10 rec, 122 yds, 12.2 YPR)
  • TE Andrew May (2 rec, 24 yds)

Key Losses on Offense

  • QB Fred Payton
  • OL Ni Mansell
  • OL Tyzen Wilkerson
  • RB Austin Douglas (still on team but will sit out season with health issues)

Players to Watch Defense

  • LB Isaac Dowling (99 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 INTs, 1 FF)
  • LB Ken Standley (85 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 PBUs)
  • FS Myles Redding (60 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 4 PBUs, 1 INT )
  • CB TJ Moore (40 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 3 INTs), CB Cam Sims (30 tackles, 3 PBUs, 2 INTs)
  • DT Savio Frazier (27 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF, 1 FR)
  • DE Solomon Zubairu (35 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 PBU, 3 QBHs)
  • NT Chris Hill (22 tackles, 5.0 TFL. 0.5 sack)
  • DB Lance Wise (58 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 INTs)
  • DB Richie Coffee (41 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 2 PBUs)
  • LB Christian Hanson (31 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2 QBHs, 1 FR)

Key Losses on Defense

  • CB Michael Campbell

Key additions from the Transfer Portal

  • QB Hess Horne (Missouri State)
  • RB Micah Bell (UNC Charlotte)
  • Micah McGowan (Mississippi Gulf Coast CC)
  • WR Scott Risper (West Georgia)
  • TE Gavin McKay (Missouri)

Preseason All-SoCon Selections

  • WR/RS Deveron Harper (1st Team)
  • WR Ty James (1st Team)
  • OL John Thomas (1st Team)
  • DL Solomon Zubairu (1st Team)
  • LB Isaac Dowling (1st Team)
  • DL Savio Frazier (2nd Team)
  • LB Ken Standley (2nd Team)
  • DB Lance Wise (2nd Team)
  • DB Myles Redding (2nd Team)
  • DB/LB Richie Coffee (2nd Team)

Redshirt Sports Predicted Finish: 3rd in the SoCon

Ranking in Redshirt Sports FCS Top 25: No. 18

Preseason Outlook

It’s year four of the Drew Cronic era, and in each of the previous two, Cronic has had the Bears knocking at the door of the FCS postseason, however, losses to eventual SoCon championship teams to close out each of the past two campaigns has proven that while the program has made giant leaps in the decade since bringing football back after a seven-decade nap, the last step is often the toughest one to take.

The past two seasons have seen the Bears head into their final game of the season with a spot at the FCS playoffs at stake with a win. Two years ago, the Bears were on the brink of a historic first Southern Conference title, however, a 38-35 to SoCon champion East Tennessee State delivered a heartbreaking result to a Mercer team that some felt deserved better.

The final hurdle will likely once again be the main challenge for this Mercer football program, but knowing Cronic from his time as a coordinator during two different stints at Furman, the Bears have a man of both integrity and excellent coaching acumen leading the charge.

Last season, despite a Southern Conference record 351-yard, two-touchdown receiving performance against Samford in the final game of the season, the Bears were delivered a second-straight heartbreaker, dropping a 50-44 overtime decision at Samford. The win by the Bulldogs clinched the SoCon title outright, and saw Samford finish the season a perfect 8-0 in the SoCon.

Mercer had been sitting pretty heading into its final two Southern Conference games of the 2022 campaign, having posted a 7-2 record, which included a 5-1 mark against league foes before hosting ranked Furman and heading to ranked Samford in its final two games of the season. The Bears dropped both, losing their final home game of the game, as the Paladins ended a two-game skid against the Bears with a 23-13 win in Macon.

Despite those losses to Samford and Furman, the argument could be made for Mercer’s inclusion in the FCS postseason, despite the 7-4 record. The problem the SoCon has faced in recent years, coupled with the fact that the Bears have literally no playoff history to lean on, were good enough reasons to leave the Bears out, which is of course how the committee ended up voting.

Heading into the 2023 season, there’s plenty of good vibes around the Mercer football program, and there’s good reason to believe the Bears will once again be knocking at the door of a SoCon title as well as the FCS playoffs. The question for Cronic and his team will be is the third time indeed a charm, and will the 2023 campaign prove to be the season that the Bears kick down the door that has shut down their season earlier than they’d hoped in the previous two.

There’s reason to believe 2023 just might be that year that Cronic’s Bears get the job done. One of the major reasons for such orange optimism is the fact that 19 starters return to the fold, with 10 back on a defense that was stellar a year ago and nine on the offensive side of the football.

The biggest loss on either side of the ball is quarterback Fred Payton, who turned in what was a season that will be remembered for years in middle Georgia. All Payton did last year was nearly win the Payton. He finished his final season in Macon by completing 216-of-325 passes for 3,019 yards, with 32 TDs and only eight INTs.

Despite the graduation of their leading man under center, there’s plenty of optimism surrounding this Bears squad heading into the 2023 season, and with 10 starters back on the defensive side of the football, figure to have one of the top defensive units in the nation.

It will be exciting to see where the 2023 season ends up for Mercer.

Previewing The Mercer Offense

Mercer’s offense is a hard one to grasp, so it’s always going to be tough for a newcomer coming in from another school to step in and be the answer as the starting quarterback for the Bears. It’s primarily why Carter Peevy will be the guy this fall for Mercer, and he’s proven he can lead this offense already back in the spring of 2021, as he garnered SoCon Freshman of the Year honors in what was a shortened 2020 season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During that spring season, Peevy would end up connecting on 89-of-164 pass attempts for 1,318 yards and eight touchdowns and four interceptions. His leadership has shown up the most in how he handled the situation with Fred Payton. Payton, who played for Coastal Carolina in the fall of 2020 and then transferred to Mercer where he sat out the SoCon spring season only to return as the starter for Mercer in the fall of 2021.

But while that might have been a reason to leave for some in today’s age of college athletics, Peevy has worked while he has waited and now it’s his time to shine and to lead what figures to be another prolific Bears offense. Over the past two years, Peevy has worked and gained a solid working knowledge of the Bears’ diverse and detailed offensive scheme and now he’s ready to step in and lead a unit that has some of the league’s top talent, especially at wide receiver.

Hess Horne, a transfer from Missouri State, is a capable understudy to Peevy in the Bears offense. The 6-2, 190-lb redshirt sophomore was a three-star quarterback at Eufala, HS in Eufala, AL., coming out of high school.

While Peevy has the answer to any question their might be at quarterback, the biggest seemingly unanswered question for Mercer’s offense this fall might be its running back depth. James Madison transfer Austin Douglas, who broke his leg early on in the 2022 season, left the Bears a man down the rest of the season, and while Al Wooten was more of the short-yardage back for the Bears last season, he had to kind of assume both roles when Douglas went down with the injury.

It will have to be Wooten to the rescue again for Mercer, as Douglas, who is still a member of the team, will not be able to play this fall due to another unfortunate health issue. It almost seems like the Bears, who saw all-conference running back Fred Jackson step away from the team at running back last July just prior to camp, have been reeling to try and fill that spot with adequate depth ever since. Douglas appeared to have been the answer for at least a short while, but his abrupt season and health concerns will likely force some younger backs to step in to produce right away this fall.

Micah McGowan ( Mississippi Gulf Coast CC) and Micah Bell (UNC Charlotte) are two transfer running backs that will look to step in right away and be utilized in the Bears ground game this fall. Look for Parker Wroble to play some at A-back as well as wide receiver again this fall for the Bears.

There’s no team as talented in the SoCon at wideout as the Bears are. The return of two All-American caliber receivers, in Ty James and Devron Harper give the Bears one of the best receiving duos in all of college football–FBS or FCS.

Harper was a unanimous SoCon first-team all-conference selection last season leading the league in total touchdowns with 16, as he caught 10 scoring passes, found paydirt on the ground on four occasions, and added both a kick and punt returns for score last fall. His 78 receptions last fall were a school record, as were his 1,878 all-purpose yards.

Speaking of records, Mercer’s Ty James knows a little about them. All types of records–both school records and SoCon records–and he made an emphatic statement in Mercer’s final game of the 2022 campaign in what was a heartbreaking 50-44 overtime loss at Samford.

All James did was break the Southern Conference record against the Bulldogs, as he looked like then Atlanta Falcon Julio Jones vs. one-time Carolina Panther James Bradberry and the rest of the Panthers secondary back in 2018, catching 12 passes for 300 yards.

Against the Bulldogs, James had a field day, and it didn’t seem to matter which Bulldog was covering him, as he hauled in 13 passes for 351 yards and a pair of scores. It was a Southern Conference record on a day when seemingly the Bears offense did everything right until the end, as the Bears couldn’t punch it in from the two, despite having it six opportunities inside the red zone late in the game to pull out the win.

It was a long James reception that gave the Bears the opportunity to win the game, as well as likely clinch a postseason bid with the win. However, the Bears eventually had to settle for a Devin Folser 20-yard field goal and the tie as time expired, and as you know, the Bears lost the game by six in overtime.

That sequence of plays at the end of regulation the 2022 season, which saw Samford’s defense force overtime were revealing. As good as both James and Harper could be and as much as they had ripped the Bulldogs defense all afternoon, it was the lack of a real between-the-tackles runner that ended up proving costly for Mercer in the end. Wooten’s experience and the two additions made via the transfer portal could drastically transform this offenses versatility this fall, but it’s a must in this league to be able to run the football between the tackles.

Aside from James and Harper, another option Peevy will have in the Mercer passing attack will be Andrew May at tight end. May logged action in nine games as a reserve behind Drake Starks, catching four passes for 22 yards. May will be challenged by Missouri transfer Gavin McKay for the starting responsibilities this fall. McKay was a consensus three-star recruit coming out of Memphis University Prep School a couple of years ago, but after redshirting his first season in Columbia, he did not see any action last season for the Tigers, and thus, opted to transfer.

As far as the offensive line is concerned heading into the 2023 season, the Bears will welcome the return of three starters along the offensive front, with John Thomas, Riley Adcock, and Nate Howard all return to the offensive front for the 2023 season. The Bears had a young offensive line unit last season that grew into their respective roles as the 2022 season progressed. Thomas found his name on the preseason all-conference scroll, and he will once again be the leader up front for Mercer. Israel Mukwiza is coming off a solid freshman campaign playing along the Mercer offensive front, and enters his second season as a second-team all-league honoree, according to the league’s head coaches.

It’s a trio that helped the Bears finish the 2022 campaign ranking seventh nationally in total offense (470.5 YPG), sixth in scoring offense (38.2 PPG), 28th in rushing offense (187.8 YPG), and 12th in passing offense (282.6 YPG).

Previewing The Mercer Defense

Ten starters return to a Bears unit that figures to be one of the best in the FCS this fall, and comes off a season that saw Mercer turn opponents over as well as any in the country.

In fact, the Bears were tied for third nationally and ranked second in the SoCon in INTs, as Mercer finished the season by picking off 17 passes. Part of that success rate can be directly attributed to the talent Mercer has along its defensive front. The other part comes as a direct reflection of how talented the Bears secondary is.

With that said, Mercer will be multiple on the defensive side of the football, but will feature a 3-4 alignment along the defensive front, with all three starters back from a year ago, as Solomon Zubairu returns at defensive end, while Savio Frazier is back at nose tackle and both are all-conference caliber players and will again challenge once again give Mercer a dominating defensive front. Last season for 9.5 TFL and four sacks. The duo helped provide excellent help in the run game, helping the Bears field the nation’s 21st best rushing defense (120.2 YPG).

The final returning starter of the trio along the defensive front is redshirt junior Chris Hill. The 284-lb Hill will enter his second season as a starter, turning in a solid rookie campaign as the starter along the Mercer defensive front. Hill started all 10 games he played in last season for Mercer, completing the campaign with a career-best 22 tackles. The

As strong as Mercer figures to be along its defensive front this fall, it might even be better at linebacker. Headlining a strong quartet of ‘backers returning for the 2023 season are inside linebackers Isaac Dowling, who was one of the biggest playmakers on the defensive side of the ball for Bears last season and had a knack for making game-changing plays. Dowling ended up finishing the season as Mercer’s leading tackler, and as a result, garnered first-team All-SoCon accolades. He’ll enter the 2023 campaign with that same distinction as one of the best defenders in the SoCon as well as all of the FCS.

Dowling will team with Ken Standley in the heart of that Mercer defense once again this fall, forming what is arguably the top linebacking duo in the SoCon heading into 2023. While Dowling found himself as a member of the first-team all-league picks heading into the 2023 season, Standley’s importance and talents did not go unnoticed in the preseason voting, as he was preseason second team all-league honoree.

Flanking both Dowling and Standley at linebacker will be Richie Coffey and sophomore Christian Hanson return at the ‘bandit’ and ‘KAT’ linebacker positions. Coffey is a veteran, who will be in his sixth season as a member of the Bears’ defense and is a preseason second-team all-league pick, while Hanson is also back after getting his career off to a fine start in the Orange and Black in 2022 by garnering SoCon All-Freshman team honors after seeing action in 10 games last season and recording 32 total hits as a rookie.

The secondary will once again be a unit stacked with talent, and most importantly, experience. Set to anchor the secondary again this season is Lance Wise. The veteran heads into his fourth season as the starter and has now seemingly become a perennial all-conference selection and All-America candidate heading into his fourth season as a starter as a member of the Mercer back line.

Wise enters his final campaign in a Mercer uniform as a preseason second-team all-conference selection. Known as one of the player’s with personality on the defensive side of the ball, it’s Wise’s game that speaks louder than his words at times on the gridiron, and his big hits as a member of that secondary are a testament of the big noise he can create in the secondary. Wise good in pass coverage, but probably enjoys his role best in coming up and making plays against the run.

Teaming with Wise at safety this fall will be another player that finds himself on a preseason All-SoCon scroll, in free safety Myles Redding, who started all 11 games last fall and is a 2023 preseason second-team all-league pick.

The only starter the Bears will be asked to replace on the defensive side of the football this fall will be at cornerback, where starter Michael Campbell has moved on. Likely to step in as the starter at Campbell’s replacement this fall will be redshirt junior Cam Sims, who logged action in all 11 games as a reserve last fall. The Georgia State transfer saw his most significant action in the secondary for the Bears last season, contributing a pair of INTs.

Rounding out the starters on the defensive side of the ball for Mercer is veteran cornerback TJ Moore, who started all 11 games for the Bears last season, leading the team and ranking tied for fourth overall in the SoCon with four INTs last season.

Previewing the Mercer Special Teams

Like Samford, Mercer has to replace its place-kicker and punter, with Devin Folser having moved on at kicker, while punter Trey Turk moved on to Middle Tennessee State. As far as Folser is concerned, his career was topsy-turvy to say the least in an Orange and Black uniform. He delivered mixed results. There were some good moments, like the on-sides kick against Chattanooga in 2021, which helped the Bears pulled off a huge upset win over a Top 10 foe in Macon.

However, there were also the ones that Mercer fans would rather forget, like the missed FG vs. East Tennessee State in 2021, or the blocked kicks he suffered vs. Samford in overtime, and near the end of the first half against Furman, as those two mishaps proved costly in both of Mercer’s final two games in 2022. The Bulldogs went on to score on their first play from scrimmage on the ensuing offensive possession, while Furman’s block in the latter stages of the first half in Macon changed the momentum of that football game. Furman’s block of a Folser kick came on the final play of the opening half, allowing the Paladins to take that momentum into the halftime locker room.

Turk’s loss will be felt and perhaps more impactful. As a sophomore last season, Turk saw action in all 11 games, punting 38 times for an average of 44.5 yards, which included eight punts that traveled in excess of 50 yards, which included one that traveled a whopping 70 yards in the air.

So who replaces Folser and Turk in 2023 for the Bears? The best guess at place-kicker might be redshirt freshman Bryce Addison, while a pair of freshmen–redshirt Ian Garcia and true freshman Kody Arnold–figure to be the two battling it out to start at punter this fall for Mercer.

The best news for Mercer’s special teams unit entering the 2023 season will be the return of kick return specialist Devron Harper, who is a preseason first-team All-SoCon pick, as he comes off a campaign which saw him return both a kickoff and punt for touchdowns, and averaged a league-best 29.1 yards per kickoff return last fall.

Overall Synopsis

So is Mercer good enough to get over the hump and win a SoCon title and qualify for the FCS playoffs this fall? Will the third time be a charm for Cronic’s Bears? Well, those aren’t easy questions to answer, but winning a title is the tougher one of the two. Can Mercer do it? Of course it can, as the separation between the top three in the SoCon is very close in terms of overall team strength. The good news is the schedule doesn’t throw the wrench at the Bears having to play Furman and Mercer in back-to-back weeks like the Bears were forced to do in 2022. That will ultimately play in the Bears favor this fall, as they chase a title. I don’t think Mercer ends up winning the SoCon title this fall, however, it wouldn’t at all be shocking if they were able to do that. I do expect it to be a breakthrough season, however, yielding what has been an elusive FCS playoff bid for the first time in school history, and in that respect, the third time's a real charm for the Bears. Quite simply the Bears have one of the top defenses in all of FCS football, and that will give them a chance to win in the regular-season or in the FCS postseason. If Mercer squeaks in the playoffs, which I think they will, don’t be surprised to see the Bears be the team that could make a deep run that no one expected because of that stout defensive unit.

2023 Schedule prediction

  • Aug. 26 vs. North Alabama (FCS Kickoff Classic) (W, 34-10)
  • Sept. 2 at Ole Miss (L, 14-31)
  • Sept. 9 vs. Morehead State (W, 56-3)
  • Sept. 23 at Furman (L, 19-27)
  • Sept. 30 vs. VMI (W, 42-10)
  • Oct. 7 at ETSU (W, 17-14)
  • Oct. 14 vs. Chattanooga (W, 20-10)
  • Oct. 21 vs. Wofford (W, 24-7)
  • Oct. 28 at Western Carolina (W, 33-30)
  • Nov. 4 at The Citadel (W, 17-13)
  • Nov. 11 vs Samford (L, 28-31)

Projected Final Regular-Season Record: 8-3 overall, 6-2 SoCon/FCS at-large playoff invitation