The University of Maine was a football team in transition during 2009.
The Black Bears had to replace several proven performers on defense, while the offense was revamped with a new quarterback and a rebuilt offensive line.
UMaine made consistent progress as the season went on and wound up with a 5-6 record, 4-4 mark in the challenging Colonial Athletic Association.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s team suffered through growing pains as numerous first- and second-year players gained the game experience they needed to be competitive in the Football Championship Subdivision.
UMaine proved it could play with anyone, as it was ahead or tied in all but one of its 11 games. The Bears had trouble performing consistently for the whole 60 minutes.
Bears’ defense on the rise
The play of the defense was the most important development. Despite season-ending injuries to senior linebacker Mark Masterson and redshirt freshman end Kris Enslen, and having to re-fortify a front that lost Jovan Belcher to the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, the unit made tremendous strides.
Senior linebacker Brandon McLaughlin (66 tackles, 10.5 for a loss), senior end Jordan Stevens (58 tackles, 10 sacks), a third-team All-CAA pick, and tackle Eric Lee (19 tackles) provided experience along with junior cornerbacks Steven Baker, an All-CAA third-teamer (48 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Dominic Cusano (35 tackles).
Sophomore linebackers Donte Dennis (team-leading 106 tackles, 4 INTs), an All-CAA second-team selection, and Vinson Givans (66 tackles), along with sophomore safeties Jerron McMillian (54 tackles, 5 INTs) and Trevor Coston (52 tackles, 5 INTs) and freshman cornerback Darlos James (25 tackles), excelled as first-time starters.
UMaine ranked second in the CAA with 19 interceptions.
Nose tackles Ryan Nani (29 tackles) and Kevin Phanor (24 tackles) and tackle Raibonne Charles of Windham (13 tackles) all played regularly up front, while senior end Al Serena, Enslen (5 games, 25 tackles), and senior defensive back Troy Harris (30 tackles) were other key contributors.
Masterson is expected to apply for a medical redshirt.
Offense lacks adequate balance
On offense, UMaine made a switch at quarterback, replacing senior Mike Brusko with strong-armed sophomore Warren Smith. The move paid dividends in the Bears’ ability to stretch defenses with longer throws, but it didn’t compensate for a sluggish run game.
The offensive line, spearheaded by senior tackle Tyler Eastman of Old Town and junior guard Matt Barber, made progress, but never established itself consistently. Redshirt freshman Chris Howley held down the other guard position, while classmate Garret Williamson started at center.
Freshman Josh Spearin of Limington wound up beating out his brother Matt Spearin, a redshirt freshman, for the right tackle job. Sophomore Steve Shea of Corinna played some at guard and center.
The Bears were not able to “pound the rock,” as their mantra says. With sophomore tailback Derek Session (479 yards) leading the way, UMaine rushed for only 1,146 yards (104 yards per game) to rank 11th among 12 CAA teams.
Smith was the No. 2 rusher with 205 yards, followed by sophomore Roosevelt Boone (176) and Pushaun Brown (134).
Sophomore Jared Turcotte of Lewiston, the top rusher in 2008, missed the season with a lower abdominal injury suffered during preseason that required surgery.
UMaine ranked 98th in rushing among 118 FCS programs.
Smith, a transfer from Iona, ushered in a more potent passing attack before missing the last two games with a broken foot. He completed 159 of 260 passes for 1,695 yards (12 touchdowns, 13 interceptions).
Brusko (20-for-28, 258 yds., 2 TDs, 1 INT) made a smooth transition to wide receiver, where he made 52 catches for 464 yards and three scores. The switch opened the door for sophomore Chris Treister of Cape Elizabeth (69-for-96, 771 yds., 7 TDs, 4 INTs) who started the last two games and demonstrated his readiness.
Senior wide receiver Landis Williams (71 rec., 798 yds., 9 TDs) showed off his speed and savvy, earning All-CAA first-team honors while leading the conference with 7.1 receptions and 79.8 yards per contest.
Junior wideout Ty Jones proved his big-play capabilities with 48 catches for 547 yards and 6 touchdowns. Session (23-176), tight end Derek Buttles (18-182) and WR Des Randall (11-209) were other keys.
Fullback Conor Keating and wideout Jeremy Kelley were other regulars.
Special teams solid
On special teams, sophomore Jordan Waxman was dependable as a place-kicker and punter. He converted 20 of 21 PATs, was 8-for-10 on field goals and averaged 32.4 yards on punts.
Brusko (36.7 yards per attempt) took over the punting job. Waxman missed the last two games with an injury, but freshman Josh Hesseltine of Orono made eight of nine PATs and one of two field goals.
UMaine also executed three onside kicks in three attempts.
Williams was third in the CAA in punt returns with an 8.1-yard average, while Randall (20.4 yards per return) was eighth in kickoff returns.
Bears lay solid foundation
UMaine held its own in 2009 despite a large number of underclassmen in full-time roles. The nonleague loss at Albany was a low point, while wins over Massachusetts and Hofstra (on the road) were highlights.
Heading into 2010, the Bears’ priorities must include re-establishing the run game with the expected return of Turcotte, and finding another receiver to fill Williams’ speedy shoes.
The defense has the potential to be special, especially with the return of Masterson and Enslen to a unit that will be aggressive and deep.
If it can develop strong leadership, expect UMaine to challenge for CAA honors and an NCAA playoff berth.