When Duncan Mercer is on the football field for Kentucky’s Centre College this fall, he hears a voice he’s known all his life. But the voice now says what coaches say. And the voice is sometimes louder than he remembers.
“Your block always matters,” the voice says emphatically. “Every play you’re potentially springing a touchdown or potentially getting into position to get us a first down.”
Mercer is a senior wide receiver and leading the NCAA Division III Colonels with 36 receptions for 449 yards and three touchdowns through five wins in six games. Yet, blocking is what his new receivers coach emphasizes.
“It needs to be a strength of our receiving corps that we’re taking the physicality to them rather than just getting in their way,” the coach says.
Mercer and his fellow receivers have responded positively to the young coach. The coach is Mercer’s older brother, Austin Mercer.
“It was definitely weird at first,” Duncan said. “But we talked about how we would handle it, and I think it’s gone well. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s done a good job, so it makes it easy.”
The older brother likes what he sees, too.
“He does almost everything right all the time,” Austin said. “But it’s not like he gets preferential treatment. I’m just as willing to yell at him as I am anyone else.”
Shared organized football experiences have been few for the brothers. Austin is a 2010 Southeastern High School graduate and Duncan is a 2013 graduate. Austin was a senior when Duncan was a freshman. Then Austin went off to play wide receiver for Division III power Mount Union.
Austin studied psychology, but he jumped at the chance to coach wide receivers last year when high school teammate Reed Florence got the offensive coordinator job at Millikin College in Illinois. Florence is back coaching at Wittenberg where he played quarterback.
Austin enjoyed coaching, but he wasn’t sure what to do next after a change in head coaches at Millikin. He was working in mental health in nearby London when he visited his brother at Centre in the spring. The coaching staff had just interviewed a candidate for the open receivers position but didn’t hire him.
The brothers and some of Duncan’s teammates joked that weekend that Austin should apply. A couple of days after he returned home, Austin called his brother and talked seriously about it. “He was on board from the get-go,” Austin said.
A week later Austin was back at Centre to interview with head coach Andy Frye and offensive coordinator Tony Joe White. They discussed the dynamic of Austin being his brother’s position coach.
“After talking through that and listening to what he had to say on his thoughts about coaching his kid brother, we felt comfortable enough to do it and that it wouldn’t be an issue,” White said. “And it hasn’t.”
Duncan is having his best year by far. Because he is 6-foot-6 and 222 pounds — “Six-six is probably a little generous,” he says — Duncan played tight end his freshman year. But he moved to wide receiver as a sophomore. Last year’s top two receivers graduated, so he has become the big target this season.
“It took him a couple seasons to figure out, ‘Hey, I am bigger and stronger than everybody else, and I can push these guys around a little bit and be more physical than they are,’” White said. “It was about three or four games into last year when the light really came on for him and he became a very dynamic receiver.”
And Duncan said he’s learning more than ever about the position from his big brother.
“There’s just a lot of things he’s learned that we hadn’t had in our offense before,” Duncan said. “It’s definitely added something to our passing game.”
Frye and White knew what they had in Duncan, but even though they liked Austin well enough to hire him, they still didn’t know for sure how good of a coach he would be. Halfway through the first season they like what they see on and off the field.
“Different ways of seeing things and ways that he’s been taught as a player and a coach helps us to remove the box from our thinking at different times,” White said. “That allows us to be a better team.”
Frye is in his 19th year at Centre and has established a brotherhood among players and a coaching staff that cares about the players.
“I can tell he cares about the players, and that’s the first thing I look for,” Frye said. “That’s part of how you make a difference.”
Duncan bragged about the Centre culture to his brother during his first three years. He wanted strong academics — he’s a double-major in math and finance — and a winning football program. The Colonels have a chance to win a second conference title in three years and go back to the Division III playoffs.
“This is the perfect combination,” he said. “I’ve fallen in love with the place.”
Austin is now witnessing what his brother has been talking about.
“It’s all about brotherhood and family, which I really enjoy,” Austin said. “When I played that was the most important part to me. I get to see it every day now instead of every couple months.”
But what about blocking? Does the former tight end show some brotherly love and sacrifice for the team?
“He’s been willing to block for our smaller, quicker guys on bubble screens,” Austin said. “And he’s willing to go in there and block linebackers because he knows he can take them on.”
Sure makes a brother proud.