The University of Maine football team has a unique situation.
The defending Colonial Athletic Association champion Black Bears have three preseason All-Americans on defense, and each plays on a different layer on the unit.
Kayon Whitaker is an end, Deshawn Stevens is at linebacker and Manny Patterson is a cornerback. Whitaker and Patterson are seniors, and Stevens is a junior.
Patterson is one of 25 players on the preseason watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, which recognizes the best defensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Patterson and Whitaker were first-team All-Colonial Athletic Association selections last fall, and Stevens was a second-teamer.
They are three of eight defensive starters returning from last year’s 10-4 team, which reached the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals for the first time in program history.
“I’m just glad I don’t have to go against those guys every week,” UMaine junior quarterback Chris Ferguson said.
The Black Bears held their first practice Thursday, and the three All-Americans say there is room for improvement and they want to live up to their individual accolades.
“It’s always good to be recognized for your performance on the field,” said Whitaker, a native of Washington, D.C., who was involved in 50 tackles last season, including 11.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. “It’s humbling and keeps you motivated to keep making plays.”
“It’s always cool to get that recognition under your name, But now you’ve got to play up to the part,” said Patterson, a Baltimore native who led the CAA in pass breakups last year with 22 and was third in the country in pass breakups per game with 1.6.
The Black Bears were picked third in the CAA preseason coaches poll after never having been picked higher than sixth in previous years. They were picked eighth a year ago.
“I want to achieve new heights. I want to be a leader and a role model,” said Stevens, a Toronto, Ontario, product who led the team in tackles with 120 and second in tackles for loss with 17. He also had nine sacks, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
The Black Bears’ preseason ranking and status as defending CAA champions will make them a favorite in many instances as opposed to the program’s more familiar role as an underdog.
“Our mentality never changes,” Stevens said. “We understand where we came from, and we go out every day and work [hard]. We have to earn respect.”
The trio feels that the UMaine defense has the potential to be one of the best in school history but has to prove it on the field.
The Black Bear defense was the stingiest against the run among the 124 FCS schools last fall, allowing only 79.2 yards per game. They were fourth in sacks per game (3.36) and sixth in tackles for loss per game (8.4). The Black Bears were 17th in fewest overall yards allowed per game (313.1).
“We have talent and depth at every position. It’s ridiculous,” Stevens said.
He also pointed out that a lot of players are putting in extra work to try to elevate their games.
“We’ve got to keep flying around, take things day by day and keep getting better,” Whitaker said.
Additional motivation for the defense comes from the 50 points and 568 yards UMaine allowed during its 50-19 loss at Eastern Washington in the FCS semifinals.
“That left a bad taste in our mouths,” Patterson said. “That definitely hurt. But that’s in the past now. We need to have short-term memories.”
First-year head coach Nick Charlton said having three preseason All-Americans on defense is reassuring.
“Whenever you have good players, it helps you sleep at night,” he said. “I love those guys but at the end of the day I want to re-challenge them and re-energize them.”
In offensive news, wide receiver Earnest Edwards and running back Joe Fitzpatrick of North Yarmouth did not practice Thursday due to injury.
Edwards led the team with 53 receptions a year ago and Fitzpatrick is the team’s top returning rusher with 476 yards.
Charlton said Edwards is nursing a hamstring injury and Fitzpatrick has a back issue.