ORONO, Maine — Last season, the ability of the University of Maine’s veterans to maximize their potential and to replace injured veterans with talented young players helped take the Black Bears to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
This fall, coach Jack Cosgrove and his staff will need similar contributions if UMaine wants to challenge for the Colonial Athletic Association title and a postseason berth.
Even with a talented nucleus of veterans, the Black Bears must replace outstanding departed seniors at quarterback, tailback, defensive tackle and safety to hold their own in the powerhouse CAA.
UMaine’s big unknown is quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, who earned the starting job during training camp. The junior will try to provide the kind of passing accuracy and decision-making that enabled Warren Smith to guide the Bears to a 9-4 record and a spot in the national quarterfinals.
“That’s probably the high focal point of the offensive side of the ball,” said Cosgrove, who is starting his 20th season as UMaine’s head coach.
Wasilewski will run an offense that features considerable experience. The line is led by three seniors, All-CAA first-team guard Chris Howley, tackle Josh Spearin of Limington and center Garret Williamson. They are joined by returning starter Jeff Gakos, a junior guard, and junior tackle Joe Hook.
The group, which has combined to make 101 career starts, is bolstered by junior All-CAA tight end Justin Perillo, who made 51 catches for 511 yards and four touchdowns last season.
“We have a real good group of veteran offensive linemen returning,” Cosgrove said. “We look at that as a possible real strength and I think we’re developing some depth there.”
The line will try to open holes for a revamped backfield built around sophomore tailback David Hood, who netted 326 yards (five TDs) last season behind senior 1,000-yard rusher Pushaun Brown.
“David has stepped up and he’s clearly established himself as our No. 1 tailback,” Cosgrove said.
Junior Terrell Walker is hampered by a knee injury, which means junior Rickey Stevens is the backup. They’re joined by a new crew of fullbacks that is headed by senior Sam Shipley, who played linebacker in 2011, along with redshirt freshmen Sean Stevenson and Sidney Weston.
“I think we’ve strengthened it from the spot it was last year,” Cosgrove said.
If Wasilewski has time to throw, he will have a versatile group of receivers from which to choose. Perrillo is backed up at tight end by sophomore Doug Nash of Turner, a converted offensive tackle.
The wide receiver corps features senior first-team All-CAA selection Maurice McDonald (58 receptions, 591 yds., 5 TDs), who missed the final four games of 2011 with a foot injury.
“He’s setting a great tempo and putting a great picture out there for [sophomores] Artie Williams [36-517-2], Damarr Aultmann [39-575-5] and [junior] Derrick Johnson,” Cosgrove said.
Johnson suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and played only three games a year ago.
Junior John Ebeling, who opened training camp battling Wasilewski for the QB job, has made the switch to receiver and will be the long-snapper.
“John gives us a way to be more diverse on offense,” Cosgrove said. “He’s a good runner, catches the ball well and he’s smart.”
UMaine ranked No. 28 in FCS passing offense last season at 240 yards per game.
Senior place-kicker Bryan Harvey returns after converting 41 of 44 PATs and 8 of 14 field goals in 2011. He is being pushed by promising freshman Sean Decloux.
The defense is built around a seasoned group of linebackers, two proven corners and veteran defensive ends. The Bears welcome back senior LB Donte Dennis, who missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery.
Dennis led the team with 108 tackles en route to All-CAA third-team honors in 2010.
“I feel like we have the best linebacking corps in the whole CAA with Troy Russell and Troy Eastman and me in the middle,” Dennis said. “I can’t wait to see what happens.”
Russell was UMaine’s No. 4 tackler a year ago with 80, while Eastman logged 33. They are supported by sophomore Arron Achey (33), oft-injured junior Shawn Bodtmann and sophomore Randy Samuels.
On the line, the Bears are building around junior end Mike Cole (49 tackles, 11 sacks, 3 blocked kicks), who made the All-CAA second team. Senior Doug Alston (25 tackles) mans the other end, while junior Erwin Roach (43) and redshirt freshman Trevor Bates of Westbrook also will be in the rotation.
They’ll flank a largely untested crew of defensive tackles, spots held the last three years by graduated Raibonne Charles and Kevin Phanor.
With sophomore Matt Pellerin of Turner out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury and senior Kris Enslen trying to rehab a bothersome knee, UMaine will need graduate student David Toriola and sophomore Matt Wilson to step in and pace the group immediately.
“The jury’s still out,” Cosgrove said. “We’re going to be a good defensive team because we have very good linebackers and corners.”
Senior corners Darlos James (48 tackles, 4 interceptions) and junior Kendall James (50/3) continued their development in 2011. Sophomore Axel Ofori and redshirt freshman Sherrod Baltimore provide depth.
The safety spots vacated by NFL signees Jerron McMillian and Trevor Coston will be filled by up-and-comers. Sophomore Khari Al-Mateen starts at free safety in front of redshirt freshman Aamad Bush.
At strong safety, junior Jamal Clay and Mike Mangiarelli have battled for the starting nod.
“Our new defensive coordinator coming in [Paul Ferraro] has a lot of energy and has a lot of things he’s bringing to the table,” Mangiarelli said. “He puts an emphasis on flying around and having fun.”
Sophomore Jeff Ondish will handle punting and kickoffs, but also has been pushed by Decloux.
Cosgrove believes the talent is there. The unknown is whether UMaine has the discipline, confidence and cohesiveness to take care of key areas.
“In this league, you have to stay healthy, you have to win games late,” he said. “You can’t be a team that turns [the ball] over.”
UMaine opens its season Sept. 8 at Boston College of the Atlantic Coast Conference.