ORONO, Maine — There was no mistaking how Donte Dennis was feeling Saturday morning as he walked off Morse Field. His huge smile spoke volumes.
The senior linebacker is back where he belongs — in the middle of the University of Maine defense. He took his familiar position as the Black Bears held their first scrimmage of the spring season on a bright, sunny day at Alfond Stadium.
“He probably would look forward to this more than most because he’s been away from it for so long in terms of the actual live scrimmaging part of things, to be out there running around and doing something that he’s got a gift for and a talent for,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove.
Dennis delivered some trademark big hits as he tried to get back into the swing of things.
“One more time. I’m excited,” said the 6-foot, 225-pounder from Rahway, N.J.
Dennis is back in the mix after missing the 2011 season with an injury to his right elbow. He underwent the “Tommy John” reconstructive ligament surgery so prevalent among baseball pitchers.
Dennis was the linchpin of the UMaine defense in the 2010 season, when he led the team and ranked eighth in the league with 108 tackles and earned a spot on the All-Colonial Athletic Association third team.
Last fall, he watched from the sidelines as the Black Bears surged to a No. 8 national ranking and advanced to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision national quarterfinals.
He admitted the experience was difficult.
“It was tough being on the sideline,” Dennis said. “I haven’t missed a year of football since I was 8.”
Dennis was by no means consumed by his disappointment. He remained busy during games charting plays for the defense and was able to contribute in practice without putting his surgically repaired elbow in peril.
“His group of guys was that senior class from last year and, unfortunately, due to injury, he didn’t get to be a part of a season that was pretty special,” Cosgrove said.
“He practiced hard for us all fall on the scout team and was with us, behind us,” he added. “The leadership qualities that he has were still in place even though he wasn’t suiting up for us on Saturdays.”
Dennis focused on doing anything he could to contribute to the team, putting his own needs in the background. He discovered a new perspective.
“It helped me not take the game for granted, realize that it could be gone just like that,” Dennis said. “Now, every moment’s precious so I’m going to give it my all.”
He knows his experience and leadership will be important as UMaine tries to replace a handful of departed seniors. Dennis hopes the Bears can be more effective stopping the run.
“I’ve got to be the example. I’ve got to stay focused for the team,” he said.
Defense dictates the action
The defense appeared to have the upper hand during Saturday’s scrimmage, which encompassed some 60 plays.
Cornerback Axel Ofori and linebacker Troy Eastman each had an interception and the unit also forced a fumble.
Perhaps UMaine’s most critical dynamic this spring is grooming its starting quarterback. The frontrunner, junior Marcus Wasilewski, had some expected ups and downs during the session.
He completed six of 11 passes for 70 yards but was intercepted twice. He ran the ball 10 times for 11 yards.
Classmate John Ebeling, who also saw duty as a receiver, had a solid effort. He went 7-for-12 passing, good for 62 yards, and carried eight times for nine yards.
Senior wide receiver Maurice McDonald set the tone for a wide receiver group that has been thinned by injuries. He caught four balls for 47 yards.
Redshirt freshman Josiah Hartley of Bangor had two receptions for 25 yards and exhibited some toughness after the catches.
Junior tailbacks Rickey Stevens (7 carries, 11 yards) and Terrel Walker (4-7) didn’t find much running room.
Cosgrove said those numbers are reflected by the play of the group up front.
“We expect our offensive line to be a strength of our football team. I didn’t feel that today,” Cosgrove said. “They’ve got to help our young quarterback and our young running backs and our young receivers grow.”