Nick Charlton has done his homework.
The first-year University of Maine football coach knows following up last year’s Colonial Athletic Association championship and Football Championship Subdivision semifinal appearance — the first in program history — is going to be a stern test.
He wants to build the program into a perennial contender, not just an occasional frontrunner.
The Black Bears open training camp at 9:50 a.m. Thursday on Morse Field in Alfond Stadium on the UMaine campus in Orono.
“The program is trending in the right direction, but it has been 17 years since we had back-to-back winning seasons, so there is a big challenge ahead for the players and the coaching staff,” said Charlton, the offensive coordinator under Joe Harasymiak a year ago when the Black Bears went 10-4 with FCS playoff wins over Jacksonville State and Weber State before they were beaten by Eastern Washington.
Harasymiak left UMaine in December to become an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota.
The last time UMaine put together consecutive winning seasons was 2001, 2002 and 2003. The Black Bears were Atlantic 10 co-champions in 2001 and 2002 and earned FCS playoff berths.
In the 15 seasons since 2003 UMaine has posted six winning records, and the Black Bears have earned four FCS playoff berths during the past 11 years.
The 30-year-old Charlton, one of the youngest Division I head coaches in the country, was pleased with the spring season and said that 80 players stayed on campus this summer to work out in preparation for the season.
“That’s the most we’ve ever had,” he said.
The league’s coaches picked the Black Bears to finish third in this year’s Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll. In the previous nine preseason polls, UMaine had not been picked higher than sixth.
UMaine returns eight starters to an imposing defensive unit and seven starters on offense.
The areas that will get the most scrutiny from Charlton and his staff are the back-up quarterback position, tight end, running back and safety.
Chris Ferguson will begin his third year as the starting quarterback, but back-up Isaiah Robinson has transferred to Hampton University in Virginia.
Ferguson missed two games last season due to a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman Ryan Walsh appeared in two games and will headline the list of candidates for the back-up job.
The other candidates are redshirt freshman Grant Hartley from Auburn and true freshmen Zoltan Panyi from Old Orchard Beach and Joe Fagnano from Pennsylvania.
“Back-up quarterback is always an important position. We knew that from last year,” Charlton said.
With tight ends Drew Belcher and Julian Dunn departing, that position is wide open.
Six-foot-five redshirt freshman Shawn Bowman and Louisville transfer Ori Jean-Charles, who was a defensive back at that FBS school, are two of the candidates for the tight end job along with sophomore Michael Laverriere from Arundel.
Laverriere, the former Maine Gatorade Player of the Year and Fitzpatrick Award winner from Thornton Academy of Saco, missed all of last season due to injury.
Last year’s leading rusher, Ramon Jefferson, transferred after being suspended for an off-field incident, but North Yarmouth senior Joe Fitzpatrick returns and University of Buffalo transfer Emmanuel Reed is a proven commodity at the FBS level.
“We have seven [running backs] in the room,” Charlton said.
Jeffrey DeVaughn and Darrius Hart, last year’s starting safeties, have departed, but experienced senior Joshua Huffman is back after missing last season due to academic reasons and had the inside track at one of the safety positions, Charlton said. Erick Robertson and Richard Carr also are seasoned performers.
The defense will be led by three preseason All-Americans: cornerback Manny Patterson, linebacker Deshawn Stevens and end Kayon Whitaker.
Discipline will be a primary area of focus, Charlton said.
Last year’s team had the most penalty yards (1,120) among the 124 FCS teams and the second-most penalties (120). Only Grambling had more (123).
The team will hold morning practices, a trend it began last season.
Scrimmages are scheduled at 10:05 a.m. Aug. 7, 14 and 21.
The Black Bears will host Sacred Heart to open the regular season at 6 p.m. Aug. 30.