ORONO, Maine — Nigel Beckford doesn’t usually hurdle opposing tacklers.
But the University of Maine’s senior running back showed that it is in his arsenal during Monday’s first scrimmage for the Black Bears.
Beckford was sprinting around the right end when junior defensive back Joshua Huffman appeared to have him lined up.
But Beckford elevated like a hurdler, leaving Huffman grabbing at air.
“It’s not something I first think of,” grinned Beckford. “But the opportunity was there so I took it.”
The elusive 5-foot-9, 188-pound Beckford, who led the Black Bears in rushing in 2015 and 2014, rattled off a number of impressive runs as did sophomore Josh Mack, redshirt junior Joe Fitzpatrick from North Yarmouth and shifty true freshman Ramon Jefferson from The Bronx, New York.
Junior running back Darian Davis-Ray did not participate as he continues to serve a suspension for an alleged violation of the student code of conduct along with wide receiver Micah Wright and defensive lineman Uchenna Egwuonwu, who are also juniors.
Having a deep stable of running backs will be an important part of UMaine’s offense as the Black Bears are hoping to establish balance between the running game and the passing attack.
“The young guys are learning and they’re learning fast so that’s good, too. Bringing them along will help us because in the past, we were low on backs,” noted Beckford. “Now we’ll have some guys who can fill in and that will make our offense more explosive.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Drew Belcher said the team has a number of running backs who can “go” and “make plays” and that the team is “very deep” at the running back and wide receiver position.
“That’s always good to have especially when the (opposing) defense is starting to wear down. Get some fresh running backs and fresh receivers in there,” said Belcher.
Fitzpatrick, the former Cheverus High School of Portland standout, saw some duty as a true freshman two years ago but decided to use last season as a redshirt year because he had a “pinched nerve in my neck.”
He has three years of eligibility.
“Last year didn’t go as planned because my back was a little messed up. I still had a redshirt year (available) because I had to play my freshman year so I decided to use it and take a year to get bigger, faster and stronger and fix my back and everything,” explained Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick rattled off a nice 15-yard run in which he broke a number of tackles and he also used his 5-10, 225-pound frame to grind out some tough yards inside on other runs. He also scored on a short plunge.
“I definitely feel better now than I did at this point last year, which is good. My back feels a lot better,” said Fitzpatrick who is 10 pounds heavier than he was a year ago.
He feels he has improved his speed and strength and was pleased with Monday’s performance although he also said, “there were some plays I wish I had another shot at but that’s what (videotape) is for. That’s what we’re going to get to tomorrow and aim to fix for next week.”
True freshman quarterback Isaiah Robinson from Bowie, Maryland, threw a pair of touchdown passes, including one to redshirt freshman wide receiver Hunter Smith of Dover-Foxcroft.
Belcher and redshirt freshman Chris Ferguson each threw a TD pass but graduate student Max Staver, a transfer from Houston Baptist, didn’t throw one and struggled, completing just one of his first six passes and having one intercepted by senior defensive back Jason Matovu.
Ferguson completed five of his first seven passes and looked sharp. He threw his TD pass to sophomore wide receiver Jaquan Blair.
“It was nice. I just tried to focus on playing football and having fun. I tried to make the easy throws. I tried to be consistent,” said Ferguson. “The guys up front did a great job. The wide receivers caught the ball. You couldn’t ask for more. And the running game looked good, too.”
Robinson’s first pass of the scrimmage was a 32-yard TD strike to senior wide receiver Marquise Adams.
Belcher strung together an impressive drive late in the scrimmage and capped it with a 16-yard TD pass to senior tight end Jason Simonovich.
Belcher was satisfied although he felt he was “a little too up and down.
“We came out slow. We lacked a little energy. But after a couple of plays, we got the ball rolling. It was good to see us bounce back,” said Belcher.
Belcher did throw an interception that resulted in a touchdown as true freshman defensive back Erick Robertson from Haddonfield, New Jersey cut in front of the receiver on a sideline pattern, snared it and raced 70 yards with it.
Junior linebacker Sterling Sheffield was elated because Robertson attended the same high school he did, Paul VI, before Sheffield transferred to Clearview Regional High.
“He’s a real nice kid. I told him two plays before his interception to ‘make a name for yourself.’ I ran all the way down the field with him. He’s a great player,” said Sheffield, who was UMaine’s third leading tackler a year ago with 65 including 11 for a loss and five sacks.
Sterling thought the scrimmage went well.
“We have a lot of young guys who stepped up and did really well today,” said Sheffield. “We have a long way to go but we got off to a great start.”
UMaine second year head coach Joe Harasymiak said “there was a good stuff but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.
“Some of our young guys played well. Our young defensive backs and wideouts were pretty good. Ramon (Jefferson) made a couple of good runs,” said Harasymiak.
UMaine also received 42-yard field goals from true freshman Kenny Doak and sophomore Derek Deoul. UMaine went just 1-for-7 in field goals a year ago.
UMaine’s final two scrimmages will be on the next two Monday afternoons. Practice starts at 2:15 p.m.
Several players didn’t participate due to injuries including offensive linemen Michael Supp and Daniel Burrows, defensive lineman Charles Mitchell and defensive back A.J. Dawson.
Defensive end Connor Walsh sustained a leg injury during the scrimmage.
UMaine will open the season at the University of New Hampshire on Thursday night, Aug. 31.
UNH was one of four Colonial Athletic Association teams picked in the top 13 in the STATS Football Championship Subdivision. UNH was number 13.
Defending national champ James Madison (Virginia) was chosen number one, Richmond was No. 7 and Villanova was No. 10. UMaine will visit James Madison on Sept. 23 and Villanova on Oct. 7. The Black Bears don’t play Richmond this season.