Good health is a critical component to the success of this year’s University of Maine football team — or any team.
Unfortunately, the Black Bears haven’t enjoyed that luxury as they begin to focus their attention on their Oct. 1 Colonial Athletic Association home opener against Delaware.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s team is off to a nice 2-1 start, but concerns about the overall number of injuries and a lack of depth on the defensive line are challenging UMaine.
The Bears have entered their bye week looking to get rested and healed up while fast-forwarding some players to shore up some spots.
The Bears have a startling lack of depth at defensive tackle, where seniors Raibonne Charles of Windham and Kevin Phanor have been the workhorses.
Their playing time has increased as the third man in the rotation, sixth-year senior Ryan Nani, nurses an elbow injury sustained early in the game at Pittsburgh. Cosgrove admits Phanor and Charles have been physically taxed having to play almost every down since then.
The problem is, UMaine was already thin on the defensive front. Senior Omar Jacobs exhausted his eligibility, junior Brent Rice (hip) is out for the season and up-and-comer DaShaun Thomas has not returned to full health.
The Bears also lost ends Kris Enslen and Spencer Wood to injury prior to the season, further depleting the corps of defensive linemen.
Redshirt freshmen Matthew Wilson and Devin Clark have seen some spot time, but the Bears haven’t established anybody else in the middle. Until Nani returns, the Bears have to find one or two more players who can hold their own to make sure Phanor and Charles don’t get overused.
That position is critical for a defense that ranks third in CAA rushing defense (110.3 yards per game), first in pass defense efficiency (95.2) and fifth in total defense (322.3 ypg).
The question that needs to be answered in the next 11 days is, who will step up and be ready to contribute?
SMITH SHOULD PLAY IT SAFE
In keeping with the injury theme, it seems UMaine should limit the number of times its places quarterback Warren Smith in harm’s way.
Smith has been the individual story of the squad thus far in 2011, completing 62 of 97 passes (.639) good for 679 yards and five touchdowns. He has not been intercepted.
With Smith demonstrating maturity and poise in his play at a level not seen previously, the Bears continue to expose him to excessive injury risk.
A staple of UMaine’s spread offense is the “quarterback power” play, a designed run that serves as a quarterback draw. That means Smith takes the snap in the shotgun, fakes dropping back to pass, then looks for a hole through which to run.
Since the play, which is no mystery to opposing defensive coordinators, is only occasionally good for a sizeable gain, why risk having Smith take unnecessary hits?
The Bears have three available tailbacks who are likely to make more out of a designed run without subjecting their most important offensive player to physical punishment.
While Smith also has tried to be smart, going into a feet-first slide to protect himself from absorbing hits, it’s only a matter of time before he is knocked out of a game.
It seems to me Smith’s feet are better utilized to help him roll out and throw the ball or to escape pass-rushers. You don’t see the Patriots using star QB Tom Brady as a running back, so why should the Bears jeopardize the rest of the season for an occasional first down?