ORONO, Maine — Last fall, the development of several talented, young offensive players helped the University of Maine earn a spot in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and post an 8-5 record.
This season, coach Jack Cosgrove and his staff will need similar improvement and contributions from many unproven players, this time on defense, if the Black Bears want to be a contender in the demanding Colonial Athletic Association.
UMaine, ranked No. 19 in The Sports Network and FCS Coaches Top 25 preseason polls, should be more experienced on offense, with senior quarterback Mike Brusko directing what promises to be a multipronged ground-air attack.
However, the Bears return only four defensive starters and must re-establish a secondary depleted by graduation, injuries and attrition, starting with Thursday’s 7 p.m. home opener against St. Cloud State.
“As much as we garnered success last year, there’s no doubt in my mind that’s only going to work against us this year in a sense of respect for us,” said Cosgrove, who is in his 17th season as head coach.
Nine seniors head a group of 18 upperclassmen on a team loaded with up-and-comers. Senior tri-captains Brusko, Jordan Stevens and Brandon McLaughlin hope to display the kind of leadership that kept last year’s team on track.
“The dynamic’s different,” Cosgrove said. “We’re probably a little bottom-heavy with our freshman and sophomore classes. Not that it’s a bad thing, it just speaks to [our lack of] experience.”
UMaine’s strength should be on offense. Brusko has the helm of a unit that features sophomore All-America fullback Jared Turcotte of Lewiston and sophomore tailbacks Derek Session, Roosevelt Boone and Pushaun Brown. That group rushed for 1,773 yards and 21 touchdowns last season.
For those numbers to improve, the Bears must replace two offensive line spots. Senior tackle Tyler Eastman of Old Town returns, while sophomore Steve Shea of Corinna and junior Matt Barber played every game at guard in 2008.
Shea and redshirt freshman Garret Williamson are vying to replace graduated center Ryan Canary, redshirt freshman Chris Howley is penciled in at guard and junior Alex Batanian has the nod at right tackle.
“That’s going to be the big key, can we run the football like we did last year,” said offensive coordinator Kevin Bourgoin. “We’ve got some new guys playing some spots, especially up front. It’s a work in progress.”
The poised Brusko is expected to see most of the quarterback duty. He passed for 936 yards and eight touchdowns on 64 percent accuracy a year ago after replacing injured and now-departed Adam Farkes.
“We obviously need to feature Michael’s strengths,” Cosgrove said. “He’s a guy we can count on to be a leader and a playmaker.”
Sophomores Chris Treister of Cape Elizabeth and Warren Smith, a transfer from Iona, have been dueling for the backup spot. One or both will play at least some, according to Bourgoin, who said the No. 2 guy must get game experience.
Brusko’s main targets will be speedy senior wide receiver Landis Williams (22 receptions, 308 yds., 5 TDs in 2008), junior wideout Tyrell Jones (23-356-4) and sophomore tight end Derek Buttles (7-130-2), along with the running back corps.
“We want to have a little more emphasis on the pass game than we did last year, a little more balanced offense and more consistency throwing the football, too,” Bourgoin said.
The Bears have significant holes to fill on defense. UMaine lost eight of its top 11 tacklers from a year ago, when it allowed 23 points and 327 yards (137.5 rushing) per game.
Three secondary starters are gone and another (McLaughlin) moved to linebacker. UMaine also has replaced two starting linemen, including consensus All-American Jovan Belcher (Kansas City Chiefs), and two linebackers.
“I don’t think we have experience across the board the way we need it,” Cosgrove said. “We’ve got to get it right away in September on the field.”
Anchoring the defense are Temple native Stevens at end and senior linebackers Mark Masterson and McLaughlin. Masterson was fifth on the squad with 58 tackles in ’08, while Stevens (53 tackles, 4 sacks) and McLaughlin (51 tackles) were key contributors.
“I think we have a lot of playmakers,” Stevens said. “I think our personality is that we hustle and play hard.”
Sophomore Raibonne Charles of Windham (34 tackles) returns at tackle along with senior Eric Lee, while sophmore Kevin Phanor steps in at nosetackle and redshirt freshmen Kris Enslen and Doug Alston vie for time at end.
Sophomore Donte Dennis assumes the third linebacker spot, where soph Vinson Givans and juniors Ryan McCrossan (the long snapper) and Levi Ervin of Lisbon Falls provide ample depth.
The secondary features rising stars such as sophomore strong safety Jerron McMillian and soph free safety Trevor Coston, who missed most of last season with a knee injury.
The lone senior in the secondary is cornerback Troy Harris, a veteran special teams performer. Junior Steven Barker, who missed 2008 after a shoulder injury, starts at corner.
Junior Dom Cusano (who sat out most of ’08 with a torn ACL) and freshman Darlos James are the backups at corner.
“[In the secondary], there’s a certain amount of baptism by fire,” said new defensive coordinator Joe Rossi. “We’ve got to go out there and play, learn a little bit on the fly.”
Left-footed sophomore Jordan Waxman appears to have the edge for the place-kicking and punting jobs, although classmate Brian Harvey is among three others competing to fill kicking roles.
Boone and Des Randall will return kickoffs, while Coston and Delcourt will return punts.
UMaine is cautiously optimistic about its prospects.
“This league [CAA] that we’re in is unforgiving,” Cosgrove said. “You really have to be a tough-minded, physically prepared young man to succeed in this league.”