ORONO — Running the ball and stopping the run are two of the basic prerequisites for winning football games.
In 2009, the University of Maine didn’t have enough experience and health to control those critical dynamics.
This season, coach Jack Cosgrove’s Black Bears appear to have enough talent, experience and depth across the board to re-establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the Colonial Athletic Association.
“This is a team that has grown tremendously, from the first game last year to the first game this year, probably as much as any team I’ve been around,” said UMaine’s 18th-year head coach.
“We were a very talented group, I thought, but a very inexperienced group,” Cosgrove said. “It showed.”
The Bears finished last season 5-6 after struggling in the second half of games.
The healthy return of junior running back Jared Turcotte of Lewiston, fifth-year senior linebacker Mark Masterson and sophomore place-kicker Brian Harvey are among the developments that should help UMaine navigate a grueling, 11-game schedule beginning with a Thursday night nonconference home game against Albany.
Turcotte, who led the team in rushing en route to All-America honors in 2008, sat out last season with two sports hernias, both of which required surgery. The fullback will be a pivotal cog in the offense.
“I think he’s a very driven young man on the football field. He’s very competitive, very passionate, very talented, too,” said Cosgrove, who said Turcotte will fill several roles.
He is joined in the backfield by junior tailbacks Derek Session (119 carries, 479 yards, 3 touchdowns in 2009) and Pushaun Brown (31-176-1), both of whom are healthy. Junior fullback Conor Keating is a hard-nosed blocker.
One question mark was answered Sunday when junior Warren Smith (159-for-260, 1,695 yards, 12 TDs, 13 interceptions) was named the starting quarterback. Classmate Chris Treister of Cape Elizabeth (69-for-96, 771 yds., 7 TDs, 4 INTs) will be his backup.
As the Bears struggled to run the ball behind a youthful line, ranking 11th in the CAA with 104.2 yards per game, Smith and Treister combined to help make UMaine the CAA’s top passing team (247.6 ypg)
UMaine’s quest is to exhibit a better blend of the run and pass, making both facets of its offense more effective.
“Going into this year, coming out of camp, we have a better feel, a better situation, better health, to where we should be able to do both,” said offensive coordinator Kevin Bourgoin.
Smith will get the ball to a receiving corps that features senior wideouts Tyrell Jones (48 catches, 547 yds., 6 TDs) and Des Randall (11-209-1), sophomore Maurice McDonald, redshirt freshman Derrick Johnson, junior tight end Derek Buttles and sophomore TE Jeff Falvey.
The engine for the offense is the line, where UMaine has more experience and depth. Sophomore center Garret Williamson anchors a unit that is expected to include sophomore left tackle Josh Spearin of Limington, senior Matt Barber or sophomore Matt Spearin of Limington at left guard, sophomore right guard Chris Howley and redshirt freshman right tackle Joe Hook. The Spearins are brothers.
The group also includes junior center/guard Steve Shea of Corinna, sophomore transfer guard Will Martin, senior tackle Alex Batanian and redshirt freshman tackle Doug Nash of Turner.
“The flexibility and the ability to have 10, 11 offensive linemen that could play for you, that’s definitely a positive, a strength, going into the season,” Bourgoin said.
The defense is built around a hard-hitting and deep linebacker corps, veteran leadership in the secondary and numerous contributors in the line.
The Bears surrendered 150.9 ypg via the run last season.
“[We want to] stop the run, eliminate big plays and create turnovers,” said defensive coordinator Joe Rossi. “We need to do a good job stopping the run, because we feel like everything else will take care of itself.”
UMaine’s catalysts include junior linebacker Donte Dennis, the top tackler in 2009 with 106, along with junior LB Vinson Givans (66 tackles), Masterson and junior safeties Jerron McMillian (55 tackles, 5 interceptions) and Trevor Coston (52 tackles, 5 INTs.).
The Bears have other proven players in senior corners Steven Barker (48 tackles, 3 INTs.) and Dom Cusano (35 tackles).
The linebacker group also includes senior Ryan McCrossan (38 tackles), junior Levi Ervin of Lisbon Falls (21), sophomore Troy Russell and redshirt freshman Shawn Bodtman and Troy Eastman.
Sophomore Darlos James and redshirt freshman Kendall James will see time at the corners, while first-year players Mike Mangiarelli and Khari Al-Mateen are the backups at safety along with redshirt freshman Jamal Clay.
The coaches expect to utilize several players on the defensive line where sophomore ends Kris Enslen and Doug Alston and junior tackles Raibonne Charles of Windham and Kevin Phanor have played effectively.
Senior Ryan Nani and senior transfer Omar Jacobs will see time inside, while redshirt freshmen Michael Cole and Craig Capella and sophomore Spencer Wood are expected to contribute.
“They’re going to be a real high-energy group for our defense,” Cosgrove said.
The kicking game has been a concern in recent years.
Sophomore Brian Harvey, who went into camp last season as the starter only to redshirt with a muscle injury, appears to have earned the place-kicking job. Junior Jordan Waxman will handle the punting and back up Harvey, although sophomore Chris Gennaro of Saco has been pushing both of them.
UMaine looks for a spark from kick returners Barker and Roosevelt Boone and punt returners Coston and Darlos James.