ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine football team established notable program firsts in 2013, claiming an outright Colonial Athletic Association championship and earning a home playoff game.
The experience and leadership provided by 18 seniors on the way to a 10-3 record (7-1 CAA) is gone, leaving the Black Bears far less seasoned this time around.
Coach Jack Cosgrove is counting on a veteran defense to stand its ground while the offense re-establishes itself behind a rebuilt offensive line, under the direction of a new quarterback.
UMaine returns 15 players who started at least five games, but eight of those line up on defense and two are kickers.
“What we lack is experience in key areas of our football team,” Cosgrove said. “The offensive line and the defensive backfield are the two areas that stand out the most, as well as the quarterback position.”
The pressing challenge is replacing All-CAA quarterback Marcus Wasilewski. As of press time Tuesday, UMaine still had not announced whether redshirt sophomore Dan Collins or freshman Drew Belcher would call the signals in Saturday’s 6 p.m. home opener against Norfolk State.
Collins appeared in two games last season, including a solid relief effort against Northwestern of the Big Ten Conference last September. Belcher is making a speedy adjustment to the college game.
The decision-making of the quarterback will be pivotal as UMaine searches to find a successful run-pass mix and avoid turnovers.
The offensive line is largely unproven. For the second-straight season, the Black Bears must replace three starters. Junior center Bruce Johnson and junior guard Dan Carriker are mainstays, but junior tackle Ben Wezel, junior guard Chase Hoyt and redshirt freshman tackle Isaiah Brooks must demonstrate their readiness to produce on a week-to-week basis.
“I think they’re ready to play, but they haven’t played, for the most part,” Cosgrove said.
The line, which has no seniors, also includes up-and-comers in redshirt freshman John Reddington and Dan Burrows and first-year prospects Jamil Demby and Cody Levy.
Junior tailback Nigel Jones, who rushed for 596 yards and eight touchdowns last season, heads the run game. He will be complemented by freshman Nigel Beckford and redshirt freshman Jerickson Federick.
Helping open holes at fullback and protect the quarterback are senior Carlton Charles of Windham and sophomores Sean Reuss and Vassili Grigorakos. Sophomores Jeremy Salmon and Max Andrews of Holden line up at tight end.
Tight ends/receivers coordinator Shawn Demaray indicated UMaine will look to run more sets utilizing a fullback and one or two tight ends.
The primary receivers are seniors Damarr Aultman (46 receptions, 550 yds., 5 TDs) and Art Williams (24-344-3), but both have nursed hamstring injuries during preseason.
Also in the mix are sophomore Jordan Dunn (8-93-1), junior Justin Flores, redshirt freshmen Jared Osumah and Jaleel Reed, junior John Hardy of Portland and freshman Micah Wright.
The group is spearheaded by the linebacking duo of sophomore Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga and junior Cabrinni Goncalves, the Black Bears’ top tacklers in 2013 with 118 and 101, respectively.
They are joined in the middle by junior Randy Samuels (21 tackles), while redshirt freshmen Austin Brown and Ben Davis and junior Matt LeBlanc are the backups.
The defensive line is anchored by junior ends Trevor Bates of Westbrook (54 tackles) and Mike Kozlakowski, who missed last season because of injury. Senior Jon Lewis (22 tackles) and redshirt freshman Jean Point-DuJour will rotate in.
At tackle, sophomore Darius Green (14 tackles) lines up alongside senior Matthew Wilson (28 tackles) with sophomore Patrick Rickard (59 tackles) and senior Devin Clark (8) slated to split duty. Green and Rickard are coming off knee surgeries.
Senior free safety Khari Al-Mateen (35 tackles) directs the secondary, and sophomore Davonte Burke is the strong safety. Senior Pat Pascal lends experience, while redshirt freshman Spencer Carey of Fairfield assumes a backup role.
Senior Axel Ofori (49 tackles, 3 interceptions) is the top corner, but an ankle injury has hampered him. Junior Sherrod Baltimore takes over the other corner, with redshirt freshmen Najee Goode and Tayvon Hall set for their Division I debuts.
“We’re excited about Khari and Axel’s back,” Cosgrove said. “After that, there’s really a lot of redshirt freshmen, a lot of young players.”
UMaine is blessed with a proven kicking tandem. Junior place-kicker Sean Decloux converted 24 of 25 PATs and 7 of 10 field goals last year, while senior Jeff Ondish averaged 40.4 yards per punt.
The Black Bears play four of their first six games on the road. The offensive line must gel quickly, and the chosen QB must execute with few momentum-sapping mistakes.
UMaine’s defense is geared to stop the run and pressure the quarterback, but its secondary likely will face numerous early tests. Limiting big plays and generating turnovers will alleviate some of the pressure.
Finally, the Black Bears cannot afford to have the shifty Aultman, the fleet Williams and talented corner Ofori on the shelf for long, given their talent and the youth behind them.