Perhaps not completely lost on the minds of Alabama football fans was Mercer’s game last Saturday against Point University, a 69-0 affair between two schools whose combined enrollment probably wouldn’t be enough to exceed that of Alabama’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Point University is an NAIA school. It was founded to educate missionaries, later became a Bible college and first formed up athletic teams in 2012, which was around the same time Mercer finally brought its football team back from a 70-year hiatus triggered by World War II.
We often get asked here at TideFans.com how we can do in-depth previews of teams like Mercer, an FBS program, especially early in the season, and in particular before Mercer has had a chance to put together a body of work. In this particular case, we likely cannot. Point University had no business being on the field against Mercer, and Mercer probably suffers from that same relationship vis-a-vis Alabama.
So how did Mercer show up on Alabama’s schedule in the first place? The answer might lie in the Bears’ offense, which shares a lot of components with the single-wing offense, but has enough passing plays in there to keep opponents honest. Sounds a little like the Gus Malzahn era of Auburn football, no?
Malzahn is no longer at Auburn, and thus, Mercer’s value on the Alabama schedule lessens considerably. Mercer is now there as that garden-variety “breather” (rather than as a practice analog for Auburn) that Alabama tends to take after a significant opener like the one it played last week against Miami. How much you think Mercer can challenge Alabama probably rides on how much credence you give to 69-0 wins over NAIA schools that weren’t playing football ten years ago.
Mercer’s offense relies heavily on the run, and run options. The offense is a unique single-wing variant that could cause Alabama some light trouble at times as it prioritizes discipline and assignment football. With Alabama forced to replace DE/OLB Christopher Allen this week, there is the potential for some busts. Against Point, Mercer did whatever it wanted: The Bears ran for 539 yards and passed for 239 yards. They currently are in the top 10 in 17 FBS offensive categories. Alabama will utilize its multiple, pro-style spread attack that controlled the game against Miami.
Carter Peevy was the most effective of the three Bear quarterbacks used against Point, throwing for 139 yards and a touchdown against a single interception. Fred Payton and Dylan Fromm combined for 100 yards backing him up. What Mercer doesn’t do is a lot of QB running; Peevy and Payton only carried the ball once each. Peevy and Fromm are freshmen while Payton is a junior. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see all three play against Alabama, as the Mercer staff believes these are three of the best players on the team regardless of position. Alabama will start Bryce Young, who is coming off the kind of debut against Miami that all Bama fans were wanting to see – and the kind that tends to land certain players on early Heisman Trophy watch lists. Young completed 71 percent of his passes, threw for 344 yards and 4 touchdowns, and avoided tossing an interception. He did, however, fumble the ball once on a sack. Paul Tyson and Jalen Milroe both played briefly in relief, and both are likely to play in this game as well. Alabama might even see walk-on Braxton Barker get some work. Really no contest here as to who is better, a running theme this week. Advantage: Alabama
Tommy Pollock was originally supposed to be a linebacker – he’s still listed there on the Mercer website – but he spent the first week of the 2021 season tearing up the Point defense for 111 yards and 2 touchdowns on 13 carries. Figuring out who’s doing what for Mercer not only requires a roster, but an understanding of what the “Joker” position is in Bears’ nomenclature; for some teams, “Joker” is another name for either the Jack linebacker position or a safety-OLB hybrid; i.e., a rover. At Mercer, that’s a name given to a running back/receiver combo spot, sort of a modified slot, wing or H-back. Parker Wroble, Brandon Mays and Karon Taylor will show up on the stat sheet a lot from that position, both as receivers and runners. If Alabama has to keep an eye on anyone, it will be Appalachian State grad transfer Nakendrick Clark, who gets the traditional tag of running back; at 5’9” and 210 pounds, he has legitimate size for the spot, whereas the others trend much smaller. Clark carried 8 times for 72 yards and a touchdown last week. Alabama will start Brian Robinson Jr. at running back, with Jase McClellan, Trey Sanders and Roydell Williams getting the relief work. This might be the week Camar Wheaton makes his debut, too. Advantage: Alabama
The Jokers make their appearance at receiver, along with a small group of traditional receivers headed up by Georgia transfer Ty James, Devron Harper and Alabama native Jaylin Peterson. There are only four true wideouts on the entire roster. At tight end, Andrew May and Luke Szabados will split time. Alabama is still feeling out its rotation. Jameson Williams, Slade Bolden and John Metchie will start, with JoJo Earle, Traeshon Holden and Javon Baker the primary backups. Thaiu Jones-Bell, Agiye Hall and Jacorey Brooks also played against Miami; nine receivers is a bit much for Alabama to play at the spot, and while the paring-down process will begin soon, likely all warm bodies will get a chance to run routes this Saturday. Jahleel Billingsley returns to the lineup along with Cameron Latu at tight end. Major Tennison will provide depth along with Kendall Randolph, who despite running at right tackle for much of fall camp played exclusively at tight end against Miami. Freshmen Caden Clark and Robbie Ouzts could see time this week along with walk-on Charlie Skehan. Advantage: Alabama
There are plenty of choices on the Mercer roster, and the advent of the transfer portal means finding 300-pounders isn’t as hard as it used to be. Virginia Tech transfer John Harris takes one of the spots along with Jason Poe and John Thomas. But also included among the starters are Santo DeFranco and Riley Adcock, who clock in at just 275 and 260 pounds respectively. Alabama should thus expect more quickness, cut blocks and other tomfoolery because if this line went straight-up against Alabama’s defensive line, the game would be over in record time. Alabama will start Emil Ekiyor Jr. and Javion Cohen at the guards and Evan Neal at left tackle. Chris Owens will start somewhere, either right tackle or center, with either Darrian Dalcourt – who had a strong starting debut against Miami – or Kendall Randolph getting the other spot. J.C. Latham and Amari Kight offer depth at tackle, while Tommy Brown backs up at guard and Seth McLaughlin at center. Advantage: Alabama
Mercer’s defense pitched a shutout in the first game, but absolutely no pertinent information can be drawn from that. Mercer runs basically a 3-1-3 Jack split and will probably be in nickel most of the day against Alabama’s alignments. Alabama used its 3-4 over/under scheme to frustrate Miami last week and will likely do the same to Mercer this week.
Mercer’s interior tackles mirror the problem with the offensive line – very light in weight, and short besides. D.J. McDaniel is roughly 5’11” and goes about 270; Chris Hill is a little bigger at 6’1”, 280 but is just a freshman. At end, Solomon Zubairu rings in at just 6’0”, 250. He and McDaniel are sophomores. The one position where there is decent size and experience is the outside linebacker/end spot, where senior Jordan Williams, a transfer from The Citadel, measures up favorably to Alabama’s players at the Jack and SLB spots. There is good depth there as well – four players total, with senior Alvin Ward Jr., a Georgia Southern transfer, providing experience off the bench. Alabama will start D.J. Dale inside given the alignment, with probably Phidarian Mathis and Justin Eboigbe as the ends. Byron Young, LaBryan Ray and Tim Smith figure to see plenty of playing time, along with Stephon Wynn Jr., Jamil Burroughs and Jah-Marien Latham. Advantage: Alabama
We don’t expect Jordan Williams to be in a stand-up alignment for Mercer; more likely, there will be two full-time linebackers and another that rotates in base. Isaac Downing and Ken Standley will start inside; they are both freshmen. Myles Jones and Cyril Turner will likely play when a second outside linebacker is needed, along with Alvin Ward. Alabama has some shuffling to do now that Christopher Allen has been lost for the season with a broken foot. Will Anderson Jr. will continue to start at one of the end spots, but the other starter will be either Chris Braswell or Drew Sanders. Sanders will get the first look but must remain consistent, especially in his coverage responsibilities, which is what got him dropped behind Ben Davis in 2020. It’s interesting to note that if Davis had remained with Alabama rather than transferring to Texas, he would have been Allen’s likely replacement at this point. King Mwikuta, Dallas Turner and Keanu Koht now enter the discussion as depth players. At inside linebacker, Henry To’o To’o will likely see his workload limited as he recovers from a mild elbow injury suffered against Miami. Jaylen Moody replaced him in that game and played well, and should enter this one early alongside Christian Harris. The primary backups will come from a list that includes Shane Lee, Deontae Lawson and Kendrick Blackshire. Jackson Bratton and Demouy Kennedy could also see time. Advantage: Alabama
Mercer started five defensive backs against Point. Kainalu Pu’u-Robinson starts at the high safety spot, with Harrison Poole his counterpart there. Michael Campbell and Yahsyn McKee will start at the corners with Lance Wise the likely Star safety. Unlike the front seven, there is decent experience here, and Pu’u-Robinson, a redshirt freshman from Hawaii, has the body type of a FBS player. Alabama will start Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis at corner, with Jordan Battle at one of the safety spots. Some combination of Brian Branch, Malachi Moore, Daniel Wright and DeMarcco Hellams will get the other safety spot and set the Star and dime rotation. Hellams missed the Miami game with an injury and might be held out of this one as well. Expect to see Khyree Jackson, Marcus Banks, Ga’Quincy McKinstry, Devonta Smith and Kristian Story as this game goes along. This may be the closest call on the board, and it’s really not very close at all. Advantage: Alabama
Devin Folser was a busy man last Saturday, hitting 9 of 9 PATs. Caleb Dowden missed the final PAT try of the game. There were no punts. Whether Dowden or Folser will handle those duties remains to be seen; Dowden averaged only about 40 yards per punt a season ago. Alabama doesn’t quite yet know what it has in freshman punter James Burnip, and he might not get many chances to show out this week. Alabama does, however, know what it has in PK Will Reichard. The return game figures to be superior to Mercer’s just off the basis of better size and athleticism. Advantage: Alabama
Same thing we say before every one of these games: Just stay healthy, Alabama. By all rights, Alabama should beat Mercer about as badly as Mercer beat Point last week. That makes the game clock a 60-minute countdown to the release of postgame injury information.
Mercer is young, but is coached by a Georgia alum, Drew Cronic, who knows what it takes to win in this league. His pregame comments have all been the right kind of stuff – never quitting, comparing yourself to the best, etc. – but even Cronic knows there’s no way he’s walking out of Bryant-Denny Stadium with a win.
As expected, this comparison is a “straight 8.” Alabama leads 8-0 across all categories, and blows away the OL-DL matchups.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN