Spring football has taken on a different meaning for the Mercer Bears. After playing three games in the fall the Bears, and many other teams in the FCS, decided to play their conference schedule in the spring.
The Bears are 5-2 this spring and are currently ranked No. 23 in the nation in the latest FCS polls. Mercer has also won their last four games which have been aided by a pair of former Statesboro Blue Devils. Sophomore Caleb Dowden is handling the punting and kicking duties while redshirt freshman Chris Hill is currently starting on the defensive line.
“Caleb has come in and is doing a great job with field goals and extra points,” said first year head coach Drew Cronic. “We have recently asked him to start punting and he’s doing a great job pinning the opposition deep. He has really improved his mental toughness where he used to get really mad at himself, but now I can see the maturity taking place. When you are kicking you have to have a short memory and put it behind you is you miss one.”
Dowden is currently 5-9 on field goal attempts and perfect on extra point tries. Dowden is also handling the punting duties and is averaging just over 40 yards per punt with 10 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
“The toughest thing for me has been transitioning from just kicking to doing the punting as well,” said Dowden. “It’s a totally different leg and foot swing but having done it in high school I am adjusting pretty good. From a physical standpoint I have put on some muscle as I have added 20 pounds since my freshman year. I came in pretty nervous as a freshman and I think I have matured, and I know what is expected of me.”
Hill has started in eight game this year at defensive line and has 16 tackles including 2.5 for loss and two sacks.
“Chris missed a couple games with an injury, and we really missed him,” said Cronic. “He is an outstanding young man and is exactly what a defensive tackle should look like. He is such a special player and to be able to have him for three more years is very exciting. He is a player that is just going to get better and better every year.”
“I learned a lot my redshirt year and I’ve had to make the transition from linebacker to defensive line,” said Hill. “I really relied on the older guys to help me a lot with the move since I had never played on the line before. I have worked hard at the techniques I need to be successful on the line and the strength staff and coaches have been great in helping me to continue to improve.”
Both Dowden and Hill admit it has been a strange season with the Bears playing three games in the fall, and then the remainder of their schedule starting in late February, but both are happy to be contributing and are hoping they can make a late push to advance to the post season.
“It’s been very weird and has really taken a toll on our bodies, but it is exciting to get the chance to play,” said Dowden. “Going straight from fall practice and three games to Christmas workouts and now a full season has been a lot to deal with. I feel like we have taken it in stride though and we are playing pretty well.”
“It has been a grind for sure,” said Hill. “I came here in June and have been steady working out and going hard since then. The three games in the fall were nice but we weren’t sure how it would go in the spring. It’s been great to get the rest of the schedule in so far and we have really picked things up the last few games.”
The Bears are currently in second place in the Southern Conference standings and conclude the regular season this Saturday at 1:00 at Samford. The FCS will hold a 16-team playoff which will begin April 24 with 10 automatic bids and six at-large berths.