ORONO — After sitting out nearly the entire 2009 football season, University of Maine senior Mark Masterson couldn’t wait to start preseason drills last week.
“For myself it’s been both exciting and frustrating,” said the 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker from Williamstown, N.J. “I could not wait to get back out here, but in the first couple of practices I was rusty.
“I’ve been away from the game for almost a year, so some of the other guys are a step ahead of me at this point. But I’d say that is a good thing because we have a lot of great players on this team, and I have to catch up to those guys because I need them and they need me for us to have a good season.”
A linebacking crew led by Masterson and Donte Dennis hopes to help Maine improve on last season’s 5-6 record, beginning when the Black Bears open their 2010 schedule Sept. 2 at home against the University of Albany.
“Having Mark back gives us an experienced player and a guy his teammates really trust,” said Maine coach Jack Cosgrove of Masterson, who received a medical redshirt from the NCAA to extend his career. “He’s an impactful part of our defense.”
Masterson ranked fifth on the team with 68 tackles in 2008 as a key part of a defense that helped Maine earn a trip to the NCAA playoffs.
As the team’s “rover” linebacker, he also contributed two fumble recoveries and a pass interception.
“We nicknamed him ‘Money Down,’” said Cosgrove, “because it always seemed like he was showing up on third-down situations and making big plays.”
Masterson was named a team captain for the 2009 season and moved to middle linebacker, where he contributed eight tackles to the Black Bears’ season-opening victory over St. Cloud State.
But one game later, Masterson’s season was over, the result of a foot injury.
“It was a tough experience for me,” said Masterson. “It was the first time in my career I’d really been injured like that.”
It was the second half of a cruel double whammy for the Black Bears, who earlier had lost All-American running back Jared Turcotte for the season to injury.
“People ask me a lot about Jared, but we missed both of them,” said Cosgrove. “We lost two outstanding football players last year, two guys who were going to be key components of whatever success we had.”
Maine’s defense struggled with the loss not only of Masterson’s defensive talents, but also his leadership — he was one of just three starters back from the team’s 2008 defense.
“It goes back to two years ago, we had the top defense in the conference in ’08 and made the playoffs, and Mark was one of three returning guys,” said Cosgrove. “When you lose eight starters and you’ve got only three back, you need those guys to be the anchors and the core of what you’re doing, and losing him right away really hurt us.”
One bright spot to come from the loss of Masterson was the emergence of Dennis as an all-conference middle linebacker, which has enabled Masterson to return outside this fall.
“Mark’s a guy who’s made a lot of big plays for us,” said Cosgrove, “and when you have that kind of feel to your game it’s inspirational to your teammates. I know all of us are happy to have him back and ready to go for us.”
Masterson, who also underwent surgery in December to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, believes he is returning to a defense much deeper than the 2009 edition, which finished ninth in the 12-team Colonial Athletic Association in total defense, allowing 346.4 yards per game.
“We want to become a more physical defense and not let up as many big plays as we did last year because big plays lead to points,” said Masterson, who has been named a preseason All-American for he 2010 season.
“Fortunately we have a lot of depth, so we want to use a lot of guys to keep everyone fresh for the third and fourth quarters because we weren’t always able to finish in those situations last year.”
There’s also the matter, for Masterson at least, of finishing his college career on a strong note, a finish he believes may depend on how the Black Bears start.
“Football is getting better everywhere, and we can’t underestimate any team like we might have with Albany last year when they beat us. Give credit to them, but we didn’t play our best,” he said.
“We’re focusing on starting faster this year. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard right from the start, and treat every play like it’s our last.”