A man stands on a football field. He is wearing a dark blue football jersey with the number "47" in white text on it and a dark blue helmet, light blue pants and white cleats. A blurred audience on bleachers is pictured behind him.
University of Maine safety Shakur Smalls in a recent football game for the Black Bears. Credit: Courtesy of UMaine Athletics

The quaint rural setting in Orono is a far cry from the bustling streets of Philadelphia.

For University of Maine redshirt freshman strong safety and Philadelphia native Shakur Smalls, seeing a deer on campus a year ago was eye-opening.

“I was shocked,” Smalls said. But it wasn’t the first one he had seen.

“When my mom and I came up here for my [recruiting] visit, we saw one and it scared my mom. It was a big one,” Smalls said with a laugh.

He has adapted nicely to the slower pace of life in Orono and is making an impact for the Black Bears. After playing in just three games a year ago, he has played in all seven this season and is tied for fourth on the team in tackles with 37. He leads the team in forced fumbles with two and is tied for first in pass breakups with four.

He broke up a late fourth down pass in UMaine’s 19-16 win at Albany that clinched the win.

“They didn’t have any time-outs so I figured they would be throwing to the sidelines. I just played through the hands in my technique,” Smalls explained.

Smalls and the Black Bears, who are 3-4 overall and 2-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association, will look for their third straight win when they visit the University of Rhode Island (5-2, 3-2) for a 1 p.m. game on Saturday. URI has lost two in a row after a 5-0 start.

“Shakur has done a great job,” said UMaine head coach Nick Charlton. “He was pretty banged up throughout the week but came out and played a ton of snaps against Albany.”

Charlton added that the young Smalls is taking advantage of his playing opportunities.

“He has made some big strides from game one to right now. You can see his growth in real time and it’s really cool. He is executing and making plays. And he’s a great person.”

Smalls said free safeties Fofie Bazzie and Robby Riobe have helped him and safeties coach Jared Keyte has also been a valuable asset.

“Coach Keyte was a quarterback and he is a real student of the game. It’s good to get his perspective,” Smalls said.

The 6-foot, 195-pound Smalls said he has been pleased with his progress, saying he’s “seeing the game better now” but he was quick to add that “there is always room for improvement.”

For the former first team All-Eastern Pennsylvania and All-City Player, the Rhode Island game will have a nice twist to it as URI was the other school that offered him a scholarship.

“But when I visited Maine, it felt like home. It felt like a real family,” he said.

Smalls is enjoying rural life in Maine.

“It’s definitely a little slower than Philly. It’s a lot busier in Philly and there is a lot of violence. But this is a good change of pace for me. It’s fun to see new things.”

The Black Bears are looking to extend their winning streak over URI to 14 games.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Derek Robertson, filling in for the injured Joe Fagnano, has completed 86 of 169 passes for UMaine for 1,081 yards. He has thrown six touchdown passes and been intercepted once.

Devin Young (32 catches-340 yards) and Andre Miller (27-458) are the leading receivers and Freddie Brock is the top ground-gainer with 348 yards on 78 carries. Brock has also caught 11 passes for 102 yards. Ray Miller (53 tackles), Bazzie (52) and Adrian Otero (44) key the defense.

URI features dual-threat quarterback Kasim Hill (85-for-164, 1,209 passing yards, 6 TDs, 4 INTs; 73 carries, 212 yards); running back Justice Antrum (124-575) and receivers Ivory Frimpong (27-375) and Caleb Warren (18-335).

The defense has been paced by Andre Blackett (68 tackles) and Evan Stewart (63).