It was a surprising season for the University of Maine football team.
Behind a dedicated and talented senior class, the Black Bears proved commitment, camaraderie and chemistry are crucial in complementing on-field talent.
After a disappointing 2010, UMaine overcame old habits, injuries and top-level opponents to go 9-4, finish second in the Colonial Athletic Association and win an NCAA playoff game.
The Bears finished the regular season ranked 13th in the Football Championship Subdivision and ended their season with a 35-23 loss to Georgia Southern in an FCS quarterfinal on Saturday.
Coach Jack Cosgrove and his staff maximized the potential of this team, even with injuries claiming several key players. The coaches also helped groom younger players into difference-makers.
Ultimately, this team won because of its 17 seniors, a group that included mostly fifth-year players.
There was proven talent, including quarterback Warren Smith, tailback Pushaun Brown, offensive tackle Steve Shea of Corinna, receiver Derek Session, safeties Jerron McMillian and Trevor Coston, linebacker Vinson Givans and defensive tackles Raibonne Charles of Windham and Kevin Phanor.
Other key contributors were punter Jordan Waxman, defensive tackle Ryan Nani, backup quarterback Chris Treister of Cape Elizabeth, kick returner Roosevelt Boone, tight ends Derek Buttles and Jeff Falvey. Linebacker Donte Dennis and safety Mike Kuhn sat out the season with injuries, while defensive back Gabe Hinds of Augusta exhibited unflagging perseverance.
The seniors formed a special bond while spending last summer working out in Orono. They developed a cohesiveness that helped UMaine overcome pressure-filled, late-game situations to beat Delaware, James Madison, Richmond and Villanova.
They performed at a high level, with Smith leading the way. He executed well and made better decisions. The result was an efficient offense that turned the ball over less and scored more often.
Smith racked up 3,122 passing yards, the most ever by a UMaine quarterback. He assumed third place on the school’s career list with 8,025 yards, behind only Mike Buck (8,491) and Ron Whitcomb (8,363).
Smith’s total includes his freshman season at Iona (1,347 yards), but he would rank fifth with 6,678 yards, even without those numbers.
The Bears played with discipline, significantly reducing their penalties. The seniors set the tone as UMaine maintained its poise with games hanging in the balance.
Despite missing a game with an injury, Brown sparked the run game with 1,093 yards — eighth best in UMaine history — and 11 touchdowns. His 2,209 career rushing yards place him ninth on the career list.
The Bears worked around injuries that claimed tight ends Buttles and Falvey and junior wideout Derrick Johnson for most of the season. Junior WR Maurice McDonald (58-591-5) and sophomore tight end Justin Perillo (51 catches, 511 yds., 4 TDs) blossomed.
When McDonald was lost to injury, redshirt freshmen WRs Damarr Aultman (39-575-5) and Art Williams (36-517-2) became impact players. Session (38-398-2) was a steadying force with his versatility as a receiver and blocker.
The offensive line matured into a formidable one. Shea, junior tackle Josh Spearin of Limington, junior center Garret Williamson, junior guard Chris Howley and sophomore guard Jeff Gakos started all 13 games.
The Bears finished fourth in the CAA in scoring (29.3 ppg) and total offense (373.3 ypg).
Junior kicker Brian Harvey was solid, converting 41 of 44 PATs and eight of 14 field-goal tries.
On defense, seniors McMillian (92 tackles) and Coston (83 tackles, 6 interceptions) spearheaded the secondary and are likely to get a shot at the pro level. Givans anchored the middle with a team-best 94 tackles, while Charles (54 tackles) and Phanor (49) solidified the center of the line along with Nani (24).
UMaine ranked fourth in CAA scoring defense (24.8 ppg) and total defense (352.5 ypg) and was particularly tough against the pass, allowing a league-low 190.6 ypg.
Sophomore end Mike Cole (49 tackles, 11 sacks) and junior linebacker Troy Russell (80 tackles) emerged as game-changers, while junior ends Erwin Roach (43) and Doug Alston (25) and sophomore tackle Craig Capella (34) raised their level of play.
At cornerback, sophomore Kendall James (50 tackles, 3 INTs) and junior Darlos James (48-4) became lockdown defenders. Junior transfer Sam Shipley (40 tackles), redshirt freshman Arron Achey (33) and sophomore Shawn Bodtmann (25) were slowed by injuries and junior Troy Eastman (33) was a solid contributor.
Backup safeties Mike Mangiarelli (22 tackles), Khari Al-Mateen (16) and Jamal Clay (8), and cornerback Axel Ofori (15) all chipped in and are back. Kuhn also may return for a fifth season.
UMaine should return a strong offensive nucleus. The Bears must replace Smith, with junior-to-be Marcus Wasilewski the front-runner, pending recruiting additions. Redshirt freshman David Hood (69-336-5) showed flashes of becoming the next go-to tailback, while Terrel Walker will be a junior.
The Bears have four starters back up front and ball-catching weapons including Perillo, McDonald, Johnson, Aultman and Williams. Junior Carlton Charles of Windham has experience at fullback.
On defense, Cole, Roach, Alston, Capella and Kris Enslen provide experience up front. The cornerbacks are proven and, if healthy, the Bears’ linebacker group could be dynamic and deep.
Dennis could return if granted a waiver for a sixth season by the NCAA.
The vacated safety spots will be up for grabs among the likes of Al-Mateen, Mangiarelli and Clay and will go to the players who can demonstrate consistency.
UMaine also must replace punter Waxman, with sophomore-to-be Jeff Ondish waiting in the wings.
Cosgrove and Co. must overcome some big losses, but if the Bears adopt the attitude and work ethic of the graduating seniors, they could again contend for CAA supremacy.