As much as things may look like they’re inching back toward normal for many college football programs with the start of the season just five weeks away, it’s still different.
The shadow of COVID-19 lingers, and the increased player movement triggered by the NCAA’s transfer portal means building team chemistry is a more important task than ever.
For the University of Maine, those challenges are being undertaken while working to resume a traditional schedule after the 2020 fall season was canceled and a spring 2021 campaign was limited to four games. The team faces an uphill battle after being picked to finish ninth out of 12 teams this fall in the Colonial Athletic Association’s annual preseason poll.
Most players on the Black Bears’ roster have been working out on campus since June in anticipation of the start of formal practices on Aug. 4 and opening night on Sept. 2 against Delaware on the newly replaced artificial turf at Alfond Stadium.
“It’s just really [about] being up here in the summer and growing with the guys and building that chemistry up again,” said UMaine senior defensive lineman Jemehl Wiley during Tuesday’s virtual Colonial Athletic Association football media day. “We’re really looking forward to the fall, and knowing that we are up here all together I think will really help us.”
UMaine is coming off a 2-2 record during the abbreviated spring season.
James Madison University and Delaware — which both reached the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals last spring and are the Black Bears’ first two opponents this season — were picked first and second, respectively, in the vote of the league’s head coaches and media relations directors.
The focus more than a month out from the season opener for UMaine is as much about reestablishing the team’s culture as it is about physical preparation.
The Black Bears’ roster includes 14 freshmen and eight transfers new to the system, and that doesn’t count other transfers who joined the program in time for last spring’s schedule.
“I thought it was really important to just get the guys playing together and literally around each other,” UMaine head coach Nick Charlton said. “I’m sure that’s going to get echoed across this [media day], but getting the team back together during COVID is critical.”
An emphasis on player-led workouts has relied on the leadership of such veterans as Andre Miller, a senior wide receiver from Old Town who led the conference with 5.25 receptions and 87 receiving yards per game last spring and tied for the league lead with six regular-season touchdown receptions, and Wiley, who ranked second on the team during the spring with 27 tackles.
“You can’t take away from the aspect of getting around your teammates and being with each other, going through all the workouts and the hard things going on,” said Miller, a first-team All-CAA pick last spring and a preseason all-conference pick for this fall. “When you’re doing it together it’s a lot easier to go through those things. When you’re doing it by yourself, when everyone’s back at home and we’re talking through Zoom, there’s only so much of a personal [relationship] you can get with a teammate. You’ve got new faces coming in so being able to interact with people, do the workouts and even hang out after the workouts in the summer is great.”
UMaine will return 10 offensive players and eight defensive players with starting experience.
The offense will feature Miller and junior quarterback Joe Fagnano, a two-year starter who ranked second in the conference with 198.8 passing yards per game during the spring.
Wiley is one of four returning starters on the defensive front while long snapper Bryce Colee, a graduate student who earned All-CAA second-team honors last spring and preseason all-conference status for this fall, is back to anchor the Black Bears’ special teams.
“Last season was definitely tough knowing that no game was promised,” Wiley said. “Now that we have a full season coming and a full summer to prepare and grow as a team and an organization, we’re really excited for the opportunity.”