BANGOR, Maine — Husson University is coming off the most successful season in its program’s young history. The Eagles were 7-3 and played in the ECAC Northeast Bowl.
In the meantime, Husson has undergone some staff changes, including a new head coach.
Yet with a solid foundation in place and a veteran squad returning, the Eagles hope to continue their climb as they begin play in the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference.
First-year head coach Niles Nelson said Husson’s success will be dictated by the willingness of its players and coaches to work hard on a daily basis.
“I always expect us to do well,” he said. “I expect we’re going to come in, do what we’ve got to do, work hard, and we’ll make things happen.”
Husson, the preseason pick to win the ECFC, opens its season Saturday with a nonleague game at Division II Merrimack (Mass.) College.
Nelson, who has been Husson’s defensive coordinator since 2002, said the Eagles have experienced only subtle growing pains during the transition to the new staff and philosophy.
“We covered a lot of ground in the month or so before we started [training camp],” Nelson said. “We have both new personalities and new terminology, but there will be a lot of similarities.”
Senior co-captain Bobby Gilbert of Beaver Cove said the players have adjusted well.
“We didn’t let things that we couldn’t control, control how we play,” he said of the coaching change. “This year, everybody’s just going to work. They’re out on the field and they’re focusing on football.”
Husson is loaded with experience on offense. The top two weapons are senior tailback Julius “Juice” Williams and junior tailback Justin Lindie of Winslow, who rushed for 1,260 and 798 yards, respectively, and combined for 25 touchdowns in 2008.
“We have to feature the two running backs,” Nelson said. “They’re both quick and have good feet.”
Sophomores James McCandless and Jack Hersom of Sidney are expected to share the quarterback duties. McCandless, who passed for 1,080 yards a year ago, also will serve as the punter.
Husson has a versatile wide receiver corps led by senior James Dobson (26 receptions, 493 yards, 5 TDs), junior Roderic Johnson (25-309-0) and sophomore Victor McKenzie who was a force in 2007 but didn’t play last fall.
Senior P.J. Dowe of Bangor is the tight end, while senior Jamie Bonnell of Oakland and junior Mike Toothaker of Wilton are capable fullbacks.
Up front, where the Eagles have dealt with some nagging injuries during preseason, the unit includes seniors in All-New England tackle Jon Benson of Biddeford, center Mike Austin of Turner, tackles Jason Cross of Winterport and Ryan Esmail, and guard Ben Emmott of Woolwich. Sophomores Brad Deurig and Ryan Coleman of Lewiston also are in the mix.
Husson’s defense ranked among the Division III leaders in some categories last fall, but lost six of its top eight tacklers.
The Eagles return a handful of mainstays, led by outside linebacker Gilbert (46 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss), sophomore safety Kyle Vanidestine of Bangor (48 tackles, 2 interceptions) and sophomore tackle Chris Dalecki of Eliot (32 tackles, 7.5 for a loss).
Other senior veterans are CB Doug Blades (23 tackles), LB Keenan Blindow (17 tackles) and CB Ramael Barton, who didn’t play in 2008.
Husson will have a different look on defense (3-4) to account for its smaller front line and versatile linebacker group.
“We’re going to be putting more pressure on teams than we were in the past,” Nelson said.
Among the first-time starters up front are sophomores Nick Keene of Auburn and Kyle Romick. At linebacker, Junior Obed Rinvil has experience, while sophomore Dillon Shaw of Augusta is new to the lineup. Sophomore safety Tom Hersom of Sidney is now a starter.
Carlos Romero is the kicker.
While Husson has long-term goals, including a conference title, Nelson is keeping his team focused on the short term.
“We’re just talking about each game. We’re looking to take care of ourselves,” said Nelson, who is stressing a blue-collar work ethic to his players.
Husson will play six league games, including home contests against SUNY Maritime (Sept. 26), Norwich (Oct. 17) and Becker (Nov. 7). Its home opener is Sept. 19 against future ECFC foe Anna Maria.