Going into the season, running back might have been the deepest position on the Mercer roster with Alex Lakes, Tee Mitchell and Payton Usher capable of doing plenty of damage to opposing defenses.
That position, however, has thinned out some heading into the Bears’ Southern Conference opener Saturday against Wofford at Five Star Stadium.
Lakes, who rushed for 1,107 yards last year and has 269 yards in three games this season, will miss the game after suffering a punctured lung against Tennessee Tech. Usher, who rushed for 776 yards in 2013, will play but will be wearing a cast after suffering a broken hand in his season debut in the same game.
That leaves Mitchell to carry most of the workload.
“Actually we went into the season thinking we’d have a one, two and three punch with Lakes and Mitchell and with Payton Usher,” Lamb said. “The good news is we have Tee Mitchell this year, and he’s playing very well. But you lose that one-two punch and that physical back you need on the goal line with Lakes out. (Mitchell) did a great job in the offseason, and he has had a tremendous start after last year being so-so for him. He had some bright spots but was always hurt. I think he’s ready to step into the spotlight and handle the load, and he’s probably going to have to do that.
“He can hurt you out of the backfield in the passing game, and he can hurt you running the ball, so we’re going to have to find ways to get him the ball.”
Mitchell battled injuries throughout the 2014 season, but he has indeed started strong this season. He leads the conference in rushing at 100.7 yards per game (Lakes led the conference in that statistic last year) and is averaging 8.2 yards per carry with two rushing touchdowns.
Mitchell also has six receptions for 118 yards and two more scores.
“I embrace all the challenges that come my way, and I’m looking forward to this one,” Mitchell said. “But it’s better to have Alex back there. With the flow of the game and how the season has gone so far, it makes it easier on all of us to have Alex in the lineup. Having that one-two punch takes the pressure off all of us.”
Lamb said Lakes will miss the next two games (the Bears play at Western Carolina next week). JeTarii Donald has moved back to running back after spending the past two seasons at that position and switching to cornerback during the offseason.
On defense, the Bears (2-1) will play without linebacker LeMarkus Bailey, who suffered a strained MCL in practice Sunday and is out a few weeks, and defensive lineman Austin Wysor, who is out for the season with a torn PCL. Kyle Trammell, who has shared time with Bailey, will start in Bailey’s spot.
Tight end Robert Brown practiced Tuesday, while wide receiver Chandler Curtis is expected to practice Wednesday after battling a high ankle sprain. Brown missed the game at Tennessee Tech, while Curtis hasn’t played since the season opener. Defensive linemen Blake Jones (mononucleosis) and Marvin Davis (concussion) will be back in the lineup Saturday.