ORONO, Maine — After an offseason full of workouts and conditioning programs, University of Maine football players and coaches hit the field with a high energy level Monday, excited to get the season underway during the first practice at Alfond Stadium.
“It feels great to finally put the helmets back on. It’s been a while,” said senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski during a sunny, yet blustery afternoon. “There were a lot of guys up here over the summer, and it’s just a good thing to get back out here and have an organized practice.”
“It’s a starting point for everything we’ve worked at since the end of last season. All of our efforts in the winter program, spring practice and summer conditioning program all point to us being here today, and we had a good start,” added head coach Jack Cosgrove. “A lot of energy and enthusiasm, and a lot of good things took place on the field. It’s good to see.”
In the first week of practice, coaches evaluate how well the players have progressed from the year before, and players look to find roles to help the team.
“You want to see development from year to year and it really sticks out in preseason, especially when the energy level is so high and they have the opportunity to practice with the excitement of the newness,” Cosgrove said. “You want to see development of the whole team, offense, defense, and special teams as well as guys establishing roles to help us win.”
Wasilewski is coming off his first year as the starting quarterback when he completed 206 of 338 passes for 2,364 yards and 21 touchdowns along with 11 interceptions. He has worked a lot with the receiving corps and against the defense to fine tune his game.
“All of [the receivers] were up here for the most part and we got out here every day and did our routes together so we just want to make it one big unit and have it all come together for us,” Wasilewski said.
“My biggest thing was to get connected with the whole team and get everyone together as best we can. You can always get better with your techniques, mechanics and stuff like that,” he added. “I really wanted to work on timing with receivers and working with the defense on different reads.”
Wasilewski also looks to be safe at the starting quarterback position for the time being.
“Right now he is. We’re in a better spot with him now than we were a year ago simply because he’s got 11 games under his belt,” Cosgrove said. “He is a lot more experienced and you can see that. He has a lot more confidence and the overall general knowledge of playing a Division I college football game in the CAA.”
With starters Chris Howley, Josh Spearin and Garrett Williamson gone, the biggest hole to fill looks to be at offensive line. The competition to fill the spots includes seniors Tyler Patterson, Joe Hook, and Jeff Gakos as well as underclassmen Bruce Johnson, Chase Hoyt, and Daniel Carriker.
The top two running backs in Rickey Stevens (137 carries, 830 yards) and Nigel Jones (49-365) return to the field, followed by fellow returning players Terrell Walker and Zedric Jones, with first-year player Jerickson Fedrick also in the mix.
Cosgrove says with the return of injured defensive lineman Michael Cole, returning experience in the secondary and a solid linebacking corps has the defense looking strong.
“We have some very experienced safeties and corners in Kendall James and Axel Ofori. Both were first-year players like Marcus on offense, they weathered an 11-game schedule, and I thought they stood up very well,” Cosgrove said.
“Khari Al-Mateen and Jamal Clay played very well last year, replacing [Trevor] Coston and [Jerron] McMillian. The linebacker position is stronger this year with Trevor Bates, Troy Eastman, Matt LeBlanc, Randy Samuels, we have some pretty good depth,” he added.
Cosgrove said that Cole is still on his rehabilitation schedule after rupturing his quadricep tendon last year at Delaware, but once he returns he will be a force to deal with.
“We’re excited about Mike, and when he gets out there I expect him to be the same football player he always was, a difficult person for opponents to block,” Cosgrove said.
After finishing 5-6 last season (4-4 in the CAA), UMaine’s schedule difficulty increased this season with a 12- game schedule, including two games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents University of Massachusetts and Northwestern University, the most ever for the program. But for now, the Black Bears’ sights remain on being ready for game one at Norfolk State University on Aug. 31.
“We have a lot of work to do before that, but like I said we’re going to take it one day at a time, and I’m confident we will be ready,” Wasilewski said.
“We better be [ready],” Cosgrove exclaimed. “That’s the plan.”
After its opener against Norfolk State, Maine travels to Foxborough, Mass., on Sept. 7 to take on UMass in Gillette Stadium, then plays its home opener on Sept. 14 against Bryant before visiting Northwestern on Sept. 21. The Bears then play CAA games: Sept. 28 at Richmond; Oct. 5 against Delaware in Orono; Oct. 19 versus William & Mary in Orono; Oct. 26 at Villanova; Nov. 2 against Stony Brook in Orono; Nov. 9 at Albany; Nov. 16 in Orono against Rhode Island and Nov. 23 at New Hampshire.