New-look Mercer Bears open practice
Mercer accomplished quite a bit during the 2016 season: its second winning season in four years and its first .500 season in Southern Conference play.
But then the nearly 30 seniors who helped lead the Bears to those accomplishments moved on from the program, and their departures leave a lot of holes to fill to lead the 2017 team. Head coach Bobby Lamb and his team returned to work Tuesday to begin to fill those spots and open preparations for the season with the first preseason practice at Five Star Stadium.
“There’s a lot of new faces,” senior linebacker LeMarkus Bailey said. “The summer was an extremely, extremely positive experience. We did great, probably one of the greatest offseasons we’ve had in a while. We just came out with a renewed commitment from the past season, and we want to win the SoCon this year.”
Bailey is one of just 11 seniors on this year’s team. Lamb pointed to that group as the players to take over leadership of the program, and he specifically mentioned linebacker Lee Bennett and offensive lineman Thomas Marchman.
Another senior to watch is running back Alex Lakes, who redshirted his first year on campus and is entering his fifth year with the program. He should have plenty of help this season with the return of Tee Mitchell, who was not with the team last year, and the addition of CJ Leggett, who spent last season at Mesa Community College.
Leggett spent two seasons at Georgia Tech, redshirting in 2014 before suffering a season-ending injury in preseason practice in 2015.
“It’s been good. It’s been a long run. I’ve been here forever, it seems like,” Lakes said with a smile. “I graduated in May, so I’m just taking classes and ready to stay healthy this season; that’s the main goal.”
Mercer opens its season Aug. 31 against Jacksonville and plays its first conference game the following week (Sept. 9) against Wofford. The Bears’ season also includes the program’s first two games against SEC programs (Sept. 16 at Auburn and Nov. 8 at Alabama).
Lamb pointed to competition, including players like defensive end transfer Naji Abdullah from Virginia, as the exciting part about opening practice for the program’s fifth season.
“To be able to get here on the field and work with them is exciting,” Lamb said. “Our goal the first couple of days is to put as much offense, defense and special teams in as we can and see how these guys can handle it.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who will be competing on a daily basis, which is exciting.”