ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine football team’s running game will take on a different look this season.
All-American Josh Mack transferred to Liberty University in Virginia after racking up 1,335 yards on 243 carries last fall. That was third best among all Football Championship Subdivision backs.
His 243 carries represented 62.5 percent of the rushes by a UMaine ball carrier.
So the torch has been passed to redshirt junior Joe Fitzpatrick from North Yarmouth and Portland’s Cheverus High School and redshirt freshman Ramon Jefferson from the Bronx, New York.
The 5-foot-11, 221-pound Fitzpatrick was UMaine’s second-leading rusher, with 382 yards on 64 carries in 2017. That’s an average of six yards per carry.
The 5-foot-9, 196-pounds Jefferson spent the year as a redshirt, learning the playbook and building himself up in the weight room.
They offer UMaine a contrast in styles.
“Ramon is the most improved player on offense since I took over, to be honest with you. He’s looking like he is going to be a real bonafide running back in this league,” UMaine offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Nick Charlton said. “He is an elusive guy. We’ve got some good players on our defense and he makes people miss. I expect him to do the same thing when we get to the show.
“And we know what we’re getting with Joe. He’s reliable, tough, he runs north-south, he gets yards. Last year, he had 64 carries and only three negative runs. There’s something to be said for his style of play.”
Fitzpatrick said he looks forward to sharing the ball with Jefferson.
“Last year, one back got all the carries,” Fitzpatrick said. “But if you have multiple backs who do similar things very well and also have different running styles, that will really take a toll on the defense.
“If you think about it, you’ve got backs who can catch the ball and run [pass] routes, but one can run over you, one can run around you and one makes you fall over. That’s going to be really hard to defend,” Fitzpatrick said. “We don’t want to be one dimensional.”
Fitzpatrick said during the spring football workouts, he worked a lot on running out on the perimeter rather than right down the middle and Jefferson did a lot of “inside runs” rather than perimeter carries so each could become more well-rounded.
Jefferson said getting to know the playbook has made life a lot easier for him.
“I’m more comfortable. Now I’m just able to play,” he said.
Jefferson said he has improved his pass blocking and has been able to run some pass routes and make catches out of the backfield.
“I’ve been working on my cuts and my vision. I want to make sure I’m reading the right hole,” said Jefferson, a two-time all-conference player at Harry S. Truman High School where he rushed for 5,456 total yards and 52 career touchdowns.
Jefferson said he has gotten quicker thanks to his offseason workouts.
“I’ve been up here since June and that has definitely helped me,” he said.
Fitzpatrick said the loss of Mack doesn’t put any additional pressure on him and he feels stronger and faster this season. He has added six pounds from last year.
“I definitely took a big step last year, and I want to take a real good leap this year,” said Fitzpatrick, who appeared in just one game two years ago because of an injury after carrying the ball 10 times for 63 yards as a true freshman.
“I want to be able to take over a game like I did in high school,” said Fitzpatrick, the former Maine Class A Gatorade Player of the Year and two-time all conference selection at Cheverus.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson said the two complement each other.
“Joe provides leadership. He’s an older guy, he’s experienced, he has made some big plays for us. He’s obviously a bruiser. He gets first downs and breaks tackles,” Ferguson said. “Ramon is quick, he’s low to the ground, which is important. He can run over somebody or he can make moves and break runs.
“I’m really excited to see them team up.”
UMaine opens the season at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, against archrival New Hampshire in Orono.
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