|Furman redshirt freshman linebacker Braden Gilby had 12 tackles in his
first career start at Virginia Tech last Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
With a boost of confidence under its belt, Furman's defense will likely be tested again Saturday when Paladin legend Bobby Lamb brings his Mercer team to Greenville. While early season stats can be taken with a grain of salt, the Bears enter as the No. 1-ranked offense in the Southern Conference at 432.3 yards and 42.7 points per game.
Mercer (2-1, 1-0) is led by sophomore quarterback Robert Riddle, who's come back from a broken collarbone suffered last season to lead the SoCon in passing (273 yards per game) and lead the country in touchdown passes (11). Without its top two quarterbacks during last year's 35-30 Furman win in Macon, the Bears turned Tyray Devezin loose. The 233-pound running back looked like Herschel Walker that day, running 30 times for 185 yards. However, he's second on the team in rushing this season at 52 yards per game. Deondre Johnson (61.3 yards per game) leads Mercer and is averaging 7.7 yards per carry.
"Riddle is a big, athletic kid who can run and throw. I think I heard Coach Lamb say at some point that he was the most talented guy he's coached since Ingle Martin," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Anybody around here knows how talented Ingle Martin was.
"I think they're kind of like us though in they'd like to run it and throw it."
One of Furman's new starters last week was redshirt freshman linebacker Braden Gilby. He took advantage of his opportunity to the tune of a team-high 12 tackles and a forced fumble, which earned him SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors.
"He's a talented kid with good speed and physical. For him, it was just getting to the point of the mental side of running the defense," Hendrix said of Gilby. "He's done more and more of that, showing us he needs to be in there a lot more.
"We've got a few more younger guys who have earned a little more playing time."
Adrian Hope and Hugh Ryan, who also made their first start last week, are listed atop the depth chart again this week. Hope, who led the nation as a freshman last season with 15 sacks, was in on a sack on Virginia Tech's third pass of the game. He could remain in the starting lineup as Furman is set to face pass-happy teams in VMI and Samford after Mercer. Ryan, who was helping Dutch Fork win its third consecutive Class 5A state championship this time last year, had six tackles and a pass break-up last week.
With as much depth as Furman has displayed on both sides of the ball, starting may not be as big a deal here as it is elsewhere. Three games into the season, there are already 15 different Paladins that have at least one tackle-for-loss. That's led by backup defensive end Dru Seabrook, who has a team-high three of Furman's SoCon-best nine sacks. Defensive pressure could be a key Saturday as Mercer has allowed only two sacks this year.
"We improved our game compared to Georgia State, but we still had some busts where they had explosive plays on us," Gilby said after Saturday's game. "We're coming into conference play so we've got to peak, and we've got a long way to go.
"The game plan the coaches put together really put us in a great position. We know what we had to do. We've just got to execute a little better and get the W next time."
While back-to-back losses by a touchdown to FBS opponents have left Furman at 1-2 entering its SoCon opener Saturday, there have been standout performances from different aspects of the team each week. The Paladins ran for 369 yards in the season-opening 33-point win over Charleston Southern. The next week, redshirt freshman Darren Grainger threw for 311 yards and four touchdowns at Georgia State. Last week, it was the defense - which also had four sacks and two turnovers - that shined.
Coming off the close calls against the FBS teams, in which Furman certainly didn't get many breaks, the thought could be that the Paladins could put all those elements together and unleash some frustration out on the SoCon. Despite coming off a 48-34 home loss to Austin Peay, Mercer might not be the one on the wrong end of a lopsided score. That's especially true given the Bears' history in league play.
Since the start of the 2015 season, Mercer has gone 15-17 in SoCon play. Of those 17 losses, 12 have been decided by seven points or less. As if the Furman-Mercer series didn't have enough storylines with Lamb's ties to Furman and his lifetime friendship with Hendrix, the games have been thrilling. Since Mercer joined the SoCon in 2014, the Paladins lead the series 3-2 and each result has been a margin of seven points or less.
"They had a tough loss against a really good Austin Peay team. ... They've (Mercer) got a good football team with a lot of weapons. ... We had a battle down there to win the conference championship a year ago and I expect the same kind of game this week," Hendrix said. "We're excited to be back at home and starting the Southern Conference schedule. At this point, nothing (that's happened this season) really matters going forward."