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Small-school product Justin Perillo develops into big-time tight end at UMaine

Jerry Lai | USA TODAY Sports
Jerry Lai | USA TODAY Sports
In this Sept. 21, 2013 file photo, Maine Black Bears tight end Justin Perillo (80) is tackled by Northwestern Wildcats linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo (44) and cornerback Dwight White (2) during the first quarter at Ryan Field.
By Pete Warner, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — Justin Perillo is the first to admit that in high school, he was more accomplished in basketball or baseball than he was as a football player.

He attended The Tatnall School, a private school of approximately 635 students, in Wilmington, Del. In 2009, Perillo was named Delaware’s basketball player of the year.

The University of Maine coaching staff recognized the football potential of the rugged, 6-foot-4 tight end. Four years later, Perillo is one of the best in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.

Saturday afternoon, Perillo hopes again to demonstrate his versatility when the Black Bears (3-1) travel to Richmond for their 3:30 p.m. Colonial Athletic Association opener against the 20th-ranked Spiders.

“Justin wasn’t a very highly-recruited guy,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove.

“His skill as a receiver was obvious,” he added. “He developed into a very strong, solid blocker.”

Perillo is coming off a productive effort in UMaine’s 35-21 loss at No. 16 Northwestern during which he made eight catches for 81 yards and a touchdown.

After not making a reception in the Bears’ opener, the 245-pound player ranks third on the team with 14 catches for 201 yards and two scores. Perillo is a two-time All-CAA selection, including a first-team nod in 2012 when he caught 30 passes for 271 yards and five TDs.

“To be honest with you, I never thought I was going to play football in college,” admitted Perillo, who as a high school senior figured he would wind up playing baseball or basketball.

That’s because football recruiters weren’t exactly beating his door down. Acting on a tip from another college coach, the UMaine staff watched game film of Perillo.

Offensive coordinator Kevin Bourgoin then made a visit to Delaware and remembered arriving at Tatnall.

“It didn’t look like a school where you were going to find a great football player,” said Bourgoin, who drove to Pennsylvania to watch Perillo play in a basketball game.

Despite giving away several inches to a pair of opposing forwards who were at least 6-foot-9, Perillo made an impression.

“He was athletic, he rebounded well,” Bourgoin said. “He put himself in great positions where he was able to compete with these two kids.”

Yet the doubts about football lingered. Delaware football head coach K.C. Keeler, whose son also attended Tatnall, hadn’t offered Perillo a scholarship.

“We try to see young men that have skills, maybe in other sports, and project that back to football,” Cosgrove said. “We’re fortunate that the skills we thought he’d be good at, he is.”

UMaine was Perillo’s only Division I full scholarship offer, but he has earned his keep.

Perillo, who has been dealing with a sore shoulder, has developed not only into a dependable tight end, but a player who capably fills multiple roles.

“[The tight end] is a big part of this offense,” Perillo said. “We not only have on hand on the ground [on the line], we motion out, we play slot receiver; we play fullback at times.”

Even though he is a proven pass-catcher — eclipsing 100 catches and 1,000 yards for his career, Perillo’s bread and butter is his blocking ability.

“He’s such a good athlete that you can ask him to block as a tight end and as a fullback,” Bourgoin said.

“He has the experience of knowing what we’re trying to do by play, by personnel group, by scheme, by concept,” he added.

Perillo also gets open and averages a touchdown every eight receptions.

He credits much of his athletic prowess to the support and influence of his parents, Leigh and Billy Perillo, and a close-knit family.

They encouraged him to play several different sports, as they had done with his older brother Jason, a lineman at Davidson, and his younger sister Kelly, who plays volleyball at La Salle.

“My mom and dad gave me that hardworking mentality, that never-give-up attitude,” said Perillo, who marvels at the sacrifices they have made.

He appreciates the support of his sizeable extended family but admits his dad has a special knack for keeping him motivated.

“It’s tough love,” Perillo said. “He never wants you to be satisfied. He wanted me to keep working hard and work for my goals.”

Perillo, who is finishing his degree in psychology, isn’t sure what his future holds. Before he goes to work, he would like to keep playing football if the opportunity presents itself.

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