Coach Jack Cosgrove has been forced to dig into the depth chart this season.
Injuries have hit the University of Maine football team hard, especially at safety, but also at the tailback position.
The Black Bears discovered Saturday that there are some capable contributors waiting in the wings.
Freshman Joe Fitzpatrick of North Yarmouth and senior Darius Benders each made important contributions during UMaine’s 39-7 Colonial Athletic Association victory at Albany.
The Bears rushed for 186 yards (5.6 yards per carry) against the Great Danes, splitting the work among three tailbacks.
Sophomore starter Nigel Beckford, who was injured in the Richmond game, picked up 48 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. With senior backups Darian Davis-Ray and Sacoy Malone sidelined by ankle injuries, Fitzpatrick and Benders got the call.
“I was just thrilled for those two guys to be as productive as they were,” UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove said on Monday’s CAA coaches teleconference.
Fitzpatrick, who starred at Cheverus High School in Portland, started his college career with consecutive bursts of 25 and 22 yards. The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder, a Fitzpatrick Trophy finalist last season, finished with seven carries for 68 yards.
“Here’s a kid who played Maine high school football last year,” Cosgrove said.
“You’ve got a solid kid in practice, a hardworking kid. You want to redshirt him, but when the depth chart dwindles the way it does, the next guy in is your next guy in and he was outstanding,” he added.
Junior quarterback Dan Collins sensed Fitzpatrick’s excitement at having the chance to play.
“He got in and did a great job, really took advantage of it and I’m really proud of him,” Collins said.
Benders, a walk-on who previously attended Hudson Valley Community College, also played well. The 5-7, 180-pounder from Walpole, Massachusetts, gained 31 yards on six carries.
“Benders was as good as [Fitzpatrick] was,” Cosgrove said. “He didn’t break off a couple of big runs like Fitzy did, but Darius Benders really earned our respect.”
The ability of Benders and Fitzpatrick to provide consistent yardage helped take the load off Beckford, who carried only four times in the second half.
The coaching staff had its collective hand forced to play Fitzpatrick and Benders because of injuries. And Cosgrove conceded that the hardest part of finding out what the “next guy in” can do is making the decision to give them an opportunity.
“It makes you mad at yourself because you’re holding on to playing other guys and there’s that ‘can he do it in the game’ thing,” Cosgrove said. “[We said] let’s go, let’s just throw them in there, and we did. Their response really speaks volumes about them and their character.”
As a result, UMaine has much more confidence moving forward about the tailback position if Beckford, Davis-Ray and Malone are hampered by injury issues.
The Black Bears return to Alfond Stadium for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. Homecoming game against Yale of the Ivy League.