York Suburban grad Merkle shining for Kenyon College
- Merkle has led Kenyon College to a 3-1 start as a freshman.
- He's thrown for 1,147 yards and seven TDs in four games, ranking 13th in the nation in D-III passing yards.
- Merkle set the York County all-time high school passing record with 5,506 yards while at York Suburban.
The odds weren't in Thomas Merkle's favor when he began this season as a freshman at Kenyon College.
Going into fall camp leading up to his first year with the Lords, the York Suburban High School graduate had to try to beat out two junior quarterbacks, who were with the program for the two prior seasons. However, working in his favor was the fact that, like him, neither had ever started a college game. So, all Merkle could do was compete and let his talent determine his fate.
Despite his inexperience at the NCAA Division III level and his lack of size, the 5-foot, 10-inch Merkle always possessed a strong arm and loads of confidence.
He started as the team's backup QB going into Kenyon's scrimmage against Washington and Lee. He had his own play package designed around his abilities to use in certain situations. He was destined to see the field as a freshman, something he never could've expected. By the end of the scrimmage, however, his playing time went from limited to limitless. An Achilles injury to the team's starting QB vaulted him into the team's starting spot.
Now, he's showcasing the same skills that made him the York County high school all-time passing leader at the college level.
"I expected a lot out of myself," he said. "When the other quarterback went down, I didn't necessarily feel that it was a drop off coming to me as a starter. The only thing was maybe a lack of being in a college environment, but the guys are unbelievable in that they had confidence in me."
Adjusting to college life: The first thing Merkle realized was different about college, compared to high school, was the time commitment.
It was not just about football, either. Juggling academics is a challenge, as well. His first experience came when he reported for preseason camp. From the moment he would wake up at 6 a.m. until he would go to sleep at 9:30 p.m., it was all about football.
Now that classes have started, that's been dialed back, but just a bit. On any given day, Merkle could have anywhere from five to six hours worth of training, preparation or practice. Twice a week he has mandatory weight training during the morning or early afternoon, followed by film study, position meetings and then two-hour practices. Mixed in with all of that are his classes and homework.
"In high school, luckily I ran two different types of offenses, which helped me get used to learning different styles and complexities of offenses," he said. "But, I think it was just the time. You can't not watch film. You can't not game plan differently for each team and understand what the defense is doing. ... There's a lot of different coverages and a lot of different blitzes you have to become acclimated for each team throughout the week."
High school star: During his time with the Trojans in high school, Merkle showed he had the ability to take his football abilities to the next level.
He saw time as a sophomore at Suburban and then became the starter by his junior year. He got some looks from FCS and Division II schools, but as he stopped growing, those looks disappeared. He realized he would have to set his sights lower. Still, he threw for 5,506 yards for the Trojans and 45 touchdowns, enough to earn him a Pennsylvania Mini-Maxwell Award and earn an offer from Kenyon.
Fantastic start: If inexperience or nerves came into play for Merkle at Kenyon, he's yet to show them.
In Kenyon's first four games, the team is 3-1 (2-1 in North Coast Athletic Conference play) with Merkle starting all four games. So far, he's thrown for 1,147 yards, including two 300-yard games, in his first two starts, putting him 13th nationwide in passing at the D-III level. He's also thrown seven TDs to just two interceptions, while also completing nearly 62 percent of his passes.
He's aware, however, that things will only get tougher as the season progresses. In the Lords' final six games of the season, they'll be on the road for four of them and face one nationally-ranked team in No. 13 Wabash and two teams that are receiving votes in the national poll — DePauw and Wittenberg.
Of course, if Merkle continues to excel, the Lords may be one of the teams receiving national attention. And Merkle may set himself on the path to break records at the college level, too.
"It's definitely been awesome," he said. "And, obviously, four games into the year, I didn't expect to be 13th in the country in passing. When I see stuff like that and myself compared to guys across the country, that's when I'm like, this is kind of awesome that I'm competing at this level and finding success early."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org