Prior to this season, if University of Maine football coach Nick Charlton drew up a list of players his team could ill afford to lose to injury, those at the top of the list would have included linebacker Deshawn Stevens, cornerback Manny Patterson and quarterback Chris Ferguson.
Patterson, a preseason first-team All-American, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the ninth game. For Stevens, a second-team selection, his season ended in the season-opening win over Sacred Heart with a torn Achilles tendon.
Ferguson, in his third season as the starting signal-caller, was lost in the sixth game with a foot injury.
Those injuries, and others to several additional key players, made sure the Black Bears didn’t have the depth to replace them amidst a 6-6 season (4-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association).
There also was an adjustment to a new head coach and revamped staff. And lack of discipline was again an issue as UMaine was the most penalized team in the CAA at 83.6 yards per game.
The Black Bears showed a lot of grit and determination, putting together a four-game winning streak to overcome a 2-5 start to pull themselves back into FCS playoff contention. But New Hampshire ended their playoff hopes with a 28-10 win on Saturday.
Stevens not only led the team in tackles a year ago with 120, he was also the emotional leader and heart and soul of the unit.
Without Stevens, who led UMaine in 2018 with 120 tackles, the defense gave up six more points and 53.4 more yards per game than last season when the 10-4 Black Bears won the CAA title and reached the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals for the first time in program history.
Linebacker Jaron Grayer, the 2017 tackles leader, played in only six games because of a shoulder injury.
The Black Bears allowed 29.4 points per game and only last-place Rhode Island surrendered more (36.3).
The defense had several games where it tackled poorly, allowing opponents to gain too many extra yards. UMaine forced just 12 turnovers (it came up with 31 a year ago), including only three interceptions. That’s 15 fewer than in 2018 when the Black Bears led the CAA.
The team finished with a minus-seven in turnover margin, next to last in the conference. The Black Bears were a plus-five in 2018.
UMaine’s 26 sacks were 21 fewer than the previous season, although they did play two more games last year.
The defense allowed 77.3 more rushing yards per game (156.5) than in 2018, when it led the nation at 79.2 ypg.
Among the positives, several younger players received quality playing time which should serve UMaine well in 2020.
The Black Bears must replace three top-notch defensive linemen in preseason third-team All-American end Kayon Whitaker (65 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, team-high nine sacks), nose tackle Charles Mitchell (47 tackles, 6 TFL) and tackle Alejandro Oregon (17 tackles, 3.5 TFL) along with linebacker Taji Lowe, who led the team with 98 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, and safety Josh Huffman (64 tackles).
Whitaker concluded his career with 183 tackles, 45.5 for a loss, and 27 sacks and Lowe made 249 tackles in his four seasons.
The Black Bears will regain the services of Stevens and will petition the NCAA to see whether he can regain this season of eligibility via a medical hardship waiver. Sophomore Adrian Otero (83 tackles) and redshirt freshman Myles Taylor (31) got a lot of experience at the linebacker slots as did converted tight end Ori Jean-Charles (27).
A healthy Grayer would also be a big plus.
Starting defensive end Jamehl Wiley (23 tackles, 4 sacks) will anchor the line and juniors Max Roberts (19 tackles, 4 sacks) and Skylar Bowman (15 tackles) saw plenty of action as did redshirt freshman Josh Lezin (16 tackles).
The secondary should be vastly improved. Sophomore cornerbacks Katley Joseph (35 tackles) and Shaquille St-Lot (27) are now battle-tested as is sophomore safety Richard Carr (54). Junior safety Erick Robertson (28) played a lot and redshirt sophomore Jordan Swann saw some game time.
Offensively, freshman quarterback Joe Fagnano replaced Ferguson and turned in an outstanding season that should place him in the running for CAA Rookie of the Year honors. He led the Black Bears to four straight wins.
Fagnano completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 1,835 yards and 17 touchdowns with three interceptions. He also rushed for 192 yards on 86 carries.
UMaine finished the season averaging 29.3 points and a league-best 296.5 passing yards per game.
That could set up an interesting quarterback duel in 2020 between Fagnano and a healthy Ferguson (57.7 percent, 1,655 yards, 8 TDs, 8 INTs).
The offense will be hard-pressed to replace its top two receivers in Jaquan Blair (65 catches, 839 yards) and dynamic Earnest Edwards (49-1,097). Edwards concluded his career with a school-record 2,625 receiving yards and 143 receptions.
Edwards, who gained 2,641 of his 5,458 career all-purpose yards this season, also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, threw four TD passes and rushed for 146 yards on 12 carries. He caught 11 TD passes.
Blair concluded his career with 134 receptions for 1,692 yards.
UMaine returns wide receivers Devin Young (41-593, 4 TDs) and Andre Miller (28-229, 4 TDs) and first-year tight end Shawn Bowman (22-219, 1 TD) had a productive year. Sophomore Jacob Hennie (7-75) will be another viable target.
The offensive line returns intact, which should pave the way for a high-powered attack. Juniors Liam Dobson and Chris Mulvey will be back at right tackle and center, respectively, and the other starters were redshirt sophomore Tyler Royal at left tackle and sophomore guards Matthias Staalsoe and Michael Gerace.
Charlton needs to find some running backs to replace North Yarmouth’s Joe Fitzpatrick (118 carries, 531 yards, 7 TDs) and Emmanuel Reed (110-467, 5 TDs). Northern Illinois transfer Jordan Rowell looked good in the preseason but suffered a knee injury in the first scrimmage and was limited to some special-teams duty.
The hard-running Fitzpatrick ended his career with 1,452 yards on 312 carries.
The running game was inconsistent, but improved later in the season. It must be productive consistently next year to take pressure off the passing attack.
The Black Bears must replace punter Derek Deoul, who ranked fourth in the CAA (41.9 yards per punt), but place-kicker Kenny Doak, who converted 14-of-21 field-goal attempts, returns.