ORONO, Maine — There is no quarterback controversy and there are plenty of veterans in the lineup this season for the University of Maine football team.
Nonetheless, the Black Bears must reinforce a handful of key positions, including three on the offensive line, to be able to make a run at a Football Championship Subdivision playoff spot.
Coach Jack Cosgrove, in his 21st season, leads UMaine into a challenging 2013 schedule. It is one that, for the first time, includes two contests against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents and a testy slate of conference games in the Colonial Athletic Association.
The Bears, who were picked to finish eighth out of 11 teams in the CAA preseason poll, will face former conference rival Massachusetts and Big Ten member Northwestern.
“Without pussy-footing around it, it’s the toughest schedule we’ve ever lined up against,” Cosgrove said, “simply because it’s 12 games, which is an extra, and its two FBS games. Regardless of who [the FBS opponent] might be, it’s still a game that extends you tremendously.”
The Black Bears, who were 5-6 last season (4-4 in league play), play four of their first five games on the road. They have only five home contests after going 1-4 a year ago on Morse Field at Alfond Stadium.
UMaine opens Saturday with a 6 p.m. game at Norfolk (Va.) State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
UMaine will attempt to achieve a similar level of defensive success that made it one of the CAA’s top units last season.
The group guided by defensive coordinator Paul Ferraro led the CAA and ranked No. 10 in the FCS in pass-efficiency defense (107.72) and was 16th in scoring defense (19.55 points per game). The Bears were second in the league and No. 22 nationally, allowing 174.3 yards per contest through the air.
Spearheading the veterans are junior strong safety Khari Al-Mateen (67 tackles, 1 interception in 2012), senior free safety Jamal Clay (64 tackles 3 INTs), senior linebacker Troy Eastman (62 tackles, 2 INTs) and senior cornerback Kendall James (45 tackles, 3 INTs).
“Our safeties were a big concern last year. It’s exciting for us to have a tandem at safety that is experienced,” Cosgrove said.
UMaine also welcomes back senior All-CAA end Mike Cole, who notched 20 tackles and seven sacks in five games before suffering a season-ending quadriceps injury.
Other returning starters include junior tackle Matt Wilson (41 tackles) and sophomore end Trevor Bates of Westbrook (36 tackles). The staff moved Bates to middle linebacker last spring, but a season-ending biceps injury to end Mike Kozlakowski likely means he’ll move back up front.
Other players with considerable experience are junior cornerback Axel Ofori (30 tackles) senior safeties Mike Mangiarelli and Lamar Fitzgerald, oft-injured junior linebacker Arron Achey, senior end Erwin Roach (28 tackles), junior tackle Devin Clark and junior linebacker Randy Samuels.
Redshirt freshman Chris Mulumba, who missed last season with a knee injury, will step into the void left by senior linebacker Donte Dennis, who made a team-high 86 tackles in 2012. Classmate Patrick Rickard will start at nose tackle and is backed up by classmate Darius Greene.
Jon Louis, a junior transfer from the University of Connecticut, adds depth at end.
“We’re excited about each of the levels,” Cosgrove said of the line, linebackers and secondary.
Senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski returns to run the Bears’ spread offense after debuting last season by completing 206 of 338 passes for 2,364 yards and 21 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.
Cosgrove said Wasilewski’s comfort level should be greatly improved with a season under his belt.
“His command of the offense, the team, the game itself situationally, working with the signal system and controlling our young men on the field, became a more prominent strength of his, which he takes into this year,” Cosgrove said.
Wasilewski, who is backed up by redshirt freshman Dan Collins, has a handful of proven receivers at his disposal, led by senior wideout Derrick Johnson (31 receptions, 346 yards, 2 TDs), along with senior All-CAA tight end Justin Perillo (30-271-5) and junior wide receivers Damarr Aultman (29-438-6) and Art Williams (25-402-4).
Cosgrove said that group must collectively be more consistent in its performance.
UMaine has a proven tailback in senior Rickey Stevens (137 carries, 819 yds., 2 TDs), but features depth with sophomore Nigel Jones (49-358-3) and seniors Terrel Walker and Zedric Joseph. The Bears’ other weapons include senior WR John Ebeling, sophomore receivers Isaiah Jones and Justin Flores, redshirt freshman WR Jordan Dunn and fullback Carlton Charles of Windham.
The challenge for the offense is finding a cohesive group of linemen. Senior guard Jeff Gakos and senior tackle Joe Hook are the veterans, while senior tackle Tyler Patterson of Owls Head, sophomore center Bruce Johnson and sophomore guard Dan Carriker will try to replace a talented trio of graduates in Chris Howley, Josh Spearin and Garret Williamson.
Sophomore Ben Wezel also is battling for playing time at tackle and guard.
“Unit chemistry is so important for that group, so that’s something we have to see,” Cosgrove said.
Special teams is an area of increased optimism based on the performances of sophomore place-kicker Sean Decloux (24-for-24 on PATs, 7-10 on field goals) and junior punter Jeff Ondish (41.0 yards per kick).
Backup sophomore cornerback Sherrod Baltimore and Mangiarelli will return punts, while Aultman, Isaiah Jones, Ofori and Walker are in the kickoff-return mix.
UMaine is counting heavily on a group of 20 seniors to provide the necessary experience and leadership to be able to win consistently.
“I continue to be impressed with our seniors and the step they took in becoming that top tier of leaders in our program,” he said. “I think we’re going to be well served by them in that capacity.”
Perillo said the Black Bears have set some lofty goals heading into the season.
“We want to get back to the playoffs and there’s an expectation we can accomplish that and maybe win a national championship,” he said.
31 — at Norfolk State, 6 p.m.
7 — at Massachusetts (Foxborough, Mass.), 2 p.m.
14 — Bryant, 3:30 p.m.
21 — at Northwestern, tba
28 — at Richmond, 4 p.m.*
5 — Delaware, 3:30 p.m.*
12 — Bye
19 — William & Mary, 12:30 p.m.*
26 — at Villanova, 1 p.m.*
2 — Stony Brook, 12:30 p.m.*
9 — at Albany, 3:30 p.m.*
16 — Rhode Island, 12:30 p.m.*
23 — at New Hampshire, noon*
*—Colonial Athletic Association game