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The University of Maine football team went 10-4, won the Colonial Athletic Association title and reached the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals last season for the first time in school history dating back to 1892.
Barring injuries to key personnel, this year’s Black Bear team should be even better.
With 15 starters back, eight on its nationally-ranked defensive unit and seven on offense, and the addition of talented newcomers, the Black Bears are built for another long playoff run.
UMaine has a first-year head coach in Nick Charlton, who at 30 is one of the youngest head coaches in the country. He heads up a young, energetic, hardworking and compassionate staff that the players have embraced.
They have capitalized on the isolation and lack of distractions in rural Maine to create a family atmosphere that can bring out the best in the players.
The Black Bears have earned respect as CAA coaches picked them third in the preseason poll, their highest finish ever.
The team has no intention of basking in the afterglow of last season’s success. UMaine football hasn’t strung together consecutive winning seasons since 2001-2003.
“We still have the mentality of an underdog,” said junior quarterback Chris Ferguson, a captain and a third-year starter. “Nothing is being given to us.
“We have a lot of talent and want to continue to establish a winning culture and championship mentality every day,” he added.
The Black Bears are motivated by their 50-19 Football Championship Subdivision national semifinal loss at Eastern Washington during which UMaine’s defense surrendered 568 yards.
“That was a humbling experience,” UMaine junior linebacker and preseason All-American Deshawn Stevens said. “That showed us how much further we still have to grow.”
Stevens is one of three preseason All-Americans on a defense that ranked first in the Football Championship Subdivision in average rushing yards allowed (79.2) and second in tackles for loss (117) and sacks (47).
Senior preseason All-American cornerback Manny Patterson led the CAA in pass breakups (22) a year ago. Stevens led the team in tackles with 120, including 17 for a loss and nine sacks. The other preseason All-American, senior end Kayon Whitaker, tied for third in the CAA in sacks (9.5).
Senior nose tackle Charles Mitchell and senior tackle Alejandro Oregon are seasoned veterans who can pressure the quarterback and stop the run. Sophomore end Jamehl Wiley made 32 tackles.
The linebacking corps of Stevens, senior Taji Lowe (85 tackles) and junior Jaron Grayer is one of the best in the Football Championship Subdivision. There will be two sophomores in the secondary to accompany Patterson and senior strong safety Joshua Huffman, who sat out last year due to academic issues.
Sophomore free safety Richard Carr had three interceptions to tie Patterson for the team lead and sophomore cornerback Katley Joseph was involved in 34 tackles. There is depth in the secondary with juniors Jordan Swann and Erick Robertson, sophomore Shaquille St.-Lot and University of Buffalo transfer Jeremiah Dadeboe.
On offense, Ferguson eyes improvement after completing 56.3 percent of his passes (2,372 yards, 22 touchdowns) last season while hampered by a sore shoulder. He must stay healthy.
Ferguson has a formidable arsenal of receivers in speedy senior and All-CAA choice Earnest Edwards (team-leading 53 catches, 839 yards, 10 TDs), senior Jaquan Blair (43-572-5), sophomore Devin Young (33-221-0) and Old Town junior Andre Miller (16-287-1).
Edwards, a CAA first-team kickoff returner, has been dealing with a nagging hamstring pull, which is a concern.
The loss of redshirt freshman running back Ramon Jefferson (1,037 yards), who transferred after being suspended for an off-field incident, is noteworthy. But the Black Bears may actually get an upgrade at tailback in Buffalo transfer Emmanuel Reed, a 5-foot-8 scatback who racked up 1,244 yards in 288 career carries at the Football Bowl Subdivision school.
Joe Fitzpatrick (476 yards), a senior from North Yarmouth, will use his 230-pound frame to grind out tough yards. Northern Illinois transfer Jordan Rowell, who is nursing a knee injury, and true freshman Curtis Murray will provide depth.
Ferguson will have some tall but new tight end targets in 6-5 redshirt freshman Shawn Bowman and 6-6 Assumption College transfer Kevin Falaki along with 6-2 Louisville transfer Ori Jean-Charles.
The offensive line was youthful and inexperienced a year ago but should be even better this season. The line averages 310 pounds and features All-CAA guard Liam Dobson, who has moved to right tackle. Redshirt sophomore Tyler Royal is the other tackle. Sophomores Michael Gerace and Matthias Staalsoe are the guards and junior Chris Mulvey returns at center.
Staalsoe and Royal are first-year starters and senior guard Migel Garcia and junior tackle Gunnar Docos of Harrison, both of whom started last year, will get plenty of playing time.
Junior Kenny Doak made 11 of 18 field goals, including two last-second game-winners versus Rhode Island and Villanova, and sophomore punter David Gelb is much improved.
Another plus for UMaine is its schedule. Six of its eight league games come against the teams picked seventh or lower in the preseason poll. The Bears will play No. 2 Towson.
UMaine visits Football Championship Subdivision schools Georgia Southern and Liberty University and also plays Colgate, which made another playoff appearance last season.
The Black Bears must demonstrate better discipline after incurring the most penalty yards in the country (1,120) in 2018. Charlton has made that a major point of emphasis.
UMaine hosts Sacred Heart at 6 p.m. Friday in its season opener.
Related: Watch the new UMaine head football coach speak about his plans for the Black Bears