ORONO, Maine — Before the 2013 season began, the University of Maine football team featured a considerable amount of experience.
One of its areas of greatest concern was the offensive line, where the Black Bears had lost a trio of three-year starters, including an All-American and two All-Colonial Athletic Association selections, to graduation.
Halfway through this season, UMaine’s offensive line has risen to the challenge. Despite a reconfigured unit that includes three first-time starters, the front five has helped pave the way for a productive offense that has coach Jack Cosgrove’s Black Bears ranked No. 14 in The Sports Network’s latest Football Championship Subdivision top 25 poll.
“It’s probably been the most pleasant surprise we’ve had as a football team,” Cosgrove said of the offensive line.
“It speaks volumes to their work as a group,” he added.
UMaine and its offensive line anticipate a serious challenge Saturday at 12:30 p.m. when they take on William & Mary (4-2, 1-1 CAA) in the homecoming game on Morse Field at Alfond Stadium.
The Black Bears had a couple of building blocks in place up front. Senior left guard Jeff Gakos and senior right tackle Joe Hook were seasoned CAA veterans around which offensive line coach Jeff Ambrosie could build.
Gakos has played in 30 consecutive games, while Hook has appeared in 17 straight contests.
With All-American Chris Howley, Josh Spearin and Garet Williamson gone, the door was open for some new talent — not to mention a new attitude for the group.
“Last year, I had three talented kids,” Ambrosie offered, “but I think those three guys sometimes got caught up worrying about those three guys.”
This year, he senses more of a group-center concept.
Senior Tyler Patterson of Owls Head is among the first-time starters after appearing sparingly in seven games a year ago. He mans the left tackle spot.
Sophomore Bruce Johnson won the job at center after getting into six games in 2012, while classmate Dan Carriker is holding down right guard. They are backed up by sophomores Chase Hoyt and Ben Wezel.
“I don’t know that people would look [at this group] and say, ‘I want that guy, I want that guy,’” Cosgrove offered. “They play well as a group and they’ve taken great direction, great coaching. It’s kind of a typical O-line group with a lunch-pail mentality.”
The line, which has been supported by the efforts of tight ends Justin Perillo and Justin Reuss, has helped UMaine put up solid numbers. The Black Bears are averaging 32.2 points per game, good for fifth in the CAA.
UMaine is the No. 2 passing team in the league at 261.5 yards per contest and ranks third in total offense (455.2 ypg) while netting 193.7 yards per outing through the run. The Bears’ average time of possession (32 minutes, 16 seconds) leads the conference.
Ambrosie said the group continues to develop its experience and identity with a solid, all-around approach.
“It’s about attitude, effort and discipline,” said Ambrosie, who used the image of how five strong fingers clenched together become a powerful fist.
“Opposing coaches aren’t going to say, they’re loaded, they’ve got a bunch of dudes up front,” he continued. “They’re going to say that group plays hard.”
UMaine’s offensive linemen also accepted the fact they might encounter a few growing pains along the way. They haven’t let any occasional struggles deter them in their pursuit of excellence.
“I feel like we’re not dwelling on our mistakes,” Gakos said. “If we make mistakes, we talk about it and get back to what we’re supposed to be doing. We just work well together.”
On Saturday, UMaine will be confronted with a stingy William & Mary defense. The Tribe leads the CAA, allowing only 11.8 points and 283.3 total yards, including only 108 on the ground.
Looking ahead, Ambrosie and the coaching staff have tried to make sure the line group doesn’t form too high an opinion of itself. With six regular-season games remaining and some formidable opponents on the schedule, the Black Bears must maintain the proper approach.
“We have some strides to make as far as our discipline with assignments and technique and doing the right thing,” Ambrosie said.
“There’s so much room for improvement, but if I’m happy about anything, it’s their effort and their attitude.”