ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine football team has spent the offseason and training camp trying to re-establish a cohesive group on the offensive line.
If that unit gels, it should bode well for the Black Bears’ “pound the rock” ground assault.
UMaine returns last season’s leading rusher in senior tailback Rickey Stevens. The 5-foot-9-inch, 198-pounder netted 819 yards (6.0 yards per carry) in his first Division I season.
The Bears also return their Nos. 2 and 3 rushers in sophomore Nigel Jones (358 yards, 3 TDs) and senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski (306 yards, 3 TDs).
UMaine should have ample depth and versatility at tailback as seniors Terrel Walker and Zedric Joseph also demonstrated their skills during Tuesday afternoon’s intrasquad scrimmage on Morse Field.
“I thought we ran the ball, at times, pretty well, which is a good sign for them,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove. “It’s not so good for the defense, because we want to stop the run.”
Jones stepped to the front last season after veteran David Hood suffered an injury. Hood subsequently left the program for undisclosed reasons.
Even though he could become UMaine’s next 1,000-yard rusher, Jones is happy about the group of backs with whom he is working every day.
“We’ve got a lot of depth at the running back position, so I think all around we have a lot of talent and we’re looking forward to the season,” Stevens said.
He said the running backs are always competing against each other, which benefits all of them.
“That makes the first guy at the top [of the depth chart] and the lowest guy at the bottom better as well,” Stevens said. “We’re all close and we like to push each other and get better every day.”
Even though the offensive line will be starting three players with limited or no game experience in UMaine’s August 31 opener at Norfolk State, the group is progressing.
“I definitely have a lot of confidence in them,” Stevens said. “They’re hard workers and they take coaching. They learn every day and they’re getting better.”
Sophomore center Bruce Johnson reciprocated the offensive line’s enthusiasm about blocking for this group of running backs.
“Up front we’re extremely confident about that 1-2-3 punch that we’ve got in the backfield,” he said. “They’re physical and they run the ball hard.”
The rugged Stevens was statistically the most effective tailback during the scrimmage, but all of the tailbacks demonstrated speed to the outside and a physical approach between the tackles.
“I thought all four guys ran the ball very well,” Cosgrove said. “Ball security’s been very good on their part.”
He singled out Walker, who missed last season with a knee injury, as showing his readiness to contribute.
“Terrel ran it tough and kept it straight-on,” Cosgrove said. “He wasn’t dancing, just pounded it up in there and had a couple nice runs.”
Bad break for Schaefer
Black Bears offensive lineman Calvert Schaefer was forced to watch Tuesday’s scrimmage from the sideline — in a wheelchair.
The redshirt freshman from Westminster, Md., suffered a season-ending injury during the first scrimmage on August 12, when he broke both bones in his lower left leg.
“As soon as I felt it, I knew it. I looked down and I was like, aw, that’s disgusting,” Schaefer said of seeing the position of his foot in relation to the leg.
The 6-foot-7, 278-pound Schaefer, who had been competing to earn playing time on the line, spent almost four days in a Bangor hospital. He had a metal rod inserted through the knee into his tibia and also had a metal plate attached to one of the bones.
“It’s disappointing. I looked forward to traveling this year, too,” he said of earning a spot on the travel squad.
It was the first significant injury of any kind in Schaefer’s career.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had anything,” he said. “The worst thing I had before this was like a sprained thumb.”
Schaefer said the recovery period is six to eight months, which will include at least two months on crutches.
“I have too much weight to be putting it on crutches,” he said.
Getting a leg up
UMaine punter Jeff Ondish saw his first live action of training camp during Tuesday’s scrimmage.
The junior, who has been hampered by a hip ailment, admitted he had to shake off a bit of rust after he booted the initial kickoff out of bounds and later dropped a punt snap.
“That’s ugly,” Cosgrove said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in a lot of areas still.”
Ondish ranked fifth in the Colonial Athletic Association last season with a 40.8-yard overall punting average. UMaine was third in net yards per punt (36.4).