ORONO — University of Maine head football coach Jack Cosgrove is hoping that the “strength up the middle” trait that produces a successful baseball team applies to football as well, specifically his defense.
He feels he has two solid interior defensive linemen in Kevin Phanor and Windham’s Raibonne Charles; two quality linebackers in Vinson Givans and Donte Dennis and a pair of top-notch safeties in Jerron McMillian and Trevor Coston.
All are seniors.
Dennis’ availability this season is uncertain due to an elbow injury.
The Black Bears, who had their first practice on Monday, will seek to be markedly improved defensively after a sub-par 2010 season.
Maine was ranked ninth in the 10-team Colonial Athletic Association in pass defense, allowing 227.1 yards per game; eighth in scoring defense (24.5 points per game) and sixth in total team defense (354.2 ypg).
The Bears allowed 23 or more points in seven games while going 4-7, 3-5 in the Colonial Athletic Association.
But Cosgrove said his defense “was put in a very difficult situation.
“We gave up four touchdowns on interception returns. So there’s some points on there that resulted from our offense’s inability to secure the football,” pointed out Cosgrove.
There were actually three interception returns for touchdowns and a fumble recovery for another after a Maine receiver was stripped of the ball.
Maine turned the ball over 21 times while the opponents turned it over on just 14 occasions.
“I like the makeup of our defense, the personality of our defense and I like the scheme we’re in (4-3). We have some outstanding players. The big thing for us is to develop depth. Injuries are always a concern,” said Cosgrove.
Charles, Givans and McMillian are optimistic about the defense’s ability to rebound from 2010 but admit that there is a lot of work to do.
“Last year was a big learning year for us,” said Charles. “One thing we learned is to take things day by day. (Rather than looking too far ahead) We need to just look forward to the next practice.”
“We need to get better every day,” agreed Givans. “We started out very strong last year but didn’t come through at the end. We’re looking to change that around. We’re going to have some new people in new spots. But we also have a lot of veterans. We’re looking for them to take over and lead us. And I want to be a better leader.”
Charles said Dennis Dottin-Carter’s move from running backs coach to defensive line coach will definitely have a positive impact on the defense.
“He was one of the best defensive linemen in the conference and we’re learning a lot from him. Some of the improvements we were able to make in spring ball were huge. And I think there’s a lot more to come,” said Charles, who was in on 26 tackles a year ago including two for losses.
Dottin-Carter was a first team All-Atlantic 10 defensive end for the Black Bears in 2002 and a second-teamer in 2003. He was also a preseason All-American prior to the 2003 season.
“He was an All-American defensive lineman and knows what he’s talking about,” concurred Givans. “I’m not worried about our defensive line. They’re in great hands.”
“Defense is always something that’s going to take time to improve on,” said McMillian, who was chosen to the All-CAA preseason team recently. “If we lose Donte, we have to be able to plug somebody in to make an impact like he did.
“I like our defense a lot. And the depth we have makes it a whole lot better. At times, people need a break so we need someone who can come in and fill that spot (effectively),” added McMillian, who had 58 tackles, including 43 unassisted and 5.5 for losses; two interceptions and six pass breakups. He was an All-CAA second team pick last fall.
Givans, who was second on the team in tackles with 87 and also tied McMillian for the team lead in interceptions with two, said he won’t feel any added pressure if tackles leader Dennis (110) can’t play. Dennis was an All-CAA third team pick in 2010 and was a preseason third team All-American and first team All-CAA pick by Phil Steele’s Preseason publication.
“He’s a big part of his defense and it will definitely be hard to fill his shoes but we’ll try out best,” said Givans who feels it will require a collective effort on behalf of the whole team to compensate for his loss.
A better pass rush could significantly improve Maine’s defensive numbers but Givans pointed out that the linebackers and defensive backs have to help the defensive line out, too.
“We have to have better coverage up top and on the linebacker level as well,” said Givans.
Charles said he has made improving his pass rush his “number one priority” and said he feels that the offense will be improved which, in turn, will help the defense.
“Our offense is looking pretty sharp. We return a lot of guys. One year we ran the ball (well), one year we passed the ball (efficiently) but we didn’t have too much of an identity last year. This year, I think we’re going to spread the rock (football) out pretty good,” said Charles.