The University of Maine football team takes to the field at the 2021 season opener. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The University of Maine’s football team may not have earned a berth in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, but the Black Bears certainly raised expectations for a playoff run next season.

UMaine finished its season with five wins in its last six games, capped by victories over Football Bowl Subdivision team University of Massachusetts (35-10) and archrival University of New Hampshire (33-20).

UMaine’s win over UNH was its first at Wildcat Stadium in Durham, New Hampshire, since 2001 and enabled the team to claim the Brice-Cowell Musket — which is given to the winner of the annual game — for the first time since 2018. The teams didn’t play this past spring due to COVID-19 cases at UNH.

UMaine, which rallied from double-digit deficits in its wins over UMass and UNH, finished 6-5 overall, 4-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association. Their three conference home losses were by a total of 25 points and all three games were winnable. With 10 starters expected back on defense and eight on offense next season, third-year head coach Nick Charlton said he is “very optimistic” about the future.

“We overcame a lot of adversity this year,” Charlton said. “I’m really proud of the staff and the players. The way we finished the year was very positive. Coming out of the pandemic this season, the staff and the players really had to grind it out and we were rewarded by how we finished.”

UMaine lost starting quarterback Joe Fagnano early in the second game of the season due to a high ankle sprain and he didn’t return until the UMass game, missing seven total starts.

Back-up redshirt freshman quarterback Derek Robertson filled in admirably, guiding the Black Bears to a 4-3 record in Fagnano’s absence.

That means UMaine will have the luxury of two experienced quarterbacks next fall.

Fagnano completed 60.2 percent of his passes (65-for-108) for 794 yards and had six touchdown passes and two interceptions, while Robertson was 121-for-238 (50.8 percent) for 1,505 yards with 12 TD passes and four interceptions.

Fagnano has now moved into 11th place on the school’s all-time list for career passing yards with 3,424 and he has played in only 14 games with 12 starts. He has completed 62 percent of his passes (253-for-408) with 31 TD passes and just six interceptions.

The UMaine running game came alive in the second half of the season. Dynamic sophomore Freddie Brock (131 carries-703 yards, 5.4 yards per carry, 7 TDs) and hard-running redshirt junior Elijah Barnwell (118-531 4.5 ypc, 4 TDs) were a formidable duo and both will be back.

Brock, who also caught 18 passes for 137 yards and three TDs, suffered an ankle injury and was carted off the field at UNH but Charlton expects him to be ready for spring ball.

Senior Zavier Scott was a multi-purpose threat as a receiver and as the running quarterback in the Wildcat formation. He carried the ball 35 times for 119 yards and two TDs and caught 11 passes for 114 yards and another TD. He will also return.

All-CAA wide receiver and captain Andre Miller (39 catches, 684 yards, 3 TDs) will be hard to replace. Old Town’s Miller concluded his career with 104 receptions for 1,848 yards and 12 TDs. His total yardage is 14th best in school history.

But all the other receivers will be back, led by senior Devin Young (54 catches, 585 yards, three TDs). Young has 125 career receptions for 1,369 yards and 8 TDs. Between his reception yards and kickoff returns, Young amassed 1,285 total yards this season.

Jacob Hennie (13-145), Montigo Moss (8-136) and Michael Monios (8-103) are also back and the tight end position will be a strength with Shawn Bowman (24-282, 4 TDs) and Daniel Rymer returning (2-33).

The offense will have to replace tackles P.J. Barr and Harrison’s Gunnar Docos but guards Matthias Staalsoe and Tyrie Francois and long-time center Michael Gerace will return. Tackle Kevin Jones and Bucksport guard David Gross gained valuable experience, as did Zach Reed. Plus, starting tackle Tyler Royal will be back after missing the season with a knee injury.

The Black Bears will have to find another kicker to replace Jonny Messina, who was 7-for-8 in field goals and made all 25 extra points. Cole Baker and Vlad Rivas will be among those competing for the job.

Punters David Gelb (40 yards per punt) and Brian Cooey (36.7 ypp) will be back but five-year long snapper Bryce Colee leaves.

On the defensive side, the Black Bears will have to fill the void left by leading tackler Ray Miller (103 tackles, 1 interception), a transfer from Campbell (North Carolina) who also emerged as a team leader.

He is the only full-time starter leaving although defensive lineman Austin Chambers (30 tackles) also had a lot of reps and he will also depart.

The secondary will be deep and talented with redshirt freshman Shakur Smalls (53 tackles, 2 interceptions, 6 pass breakups) and Fofie Bazzie (64 tackles, 4 BU) back at safety along with Austin Ambush (30 tackles). Veteran Richard Carr (39 tackles, 6 BUs) and true freshman Kahzir Brown (23 tackles, 3 INTs) headline the list of returning cornerbacks and redshirt freshman Kolubah Pewee Jr. (16 tackles) gained important playing time.

In addition, UMaine will regain veterans Katley Joseph and Shaq St-Lot, who missed the season with injuries. Robby Riobe (16 tackles) will also be back.

Linebackers Adrian Otero (63 tackles, 1 INT) and Xavier Nurse (60, 3 BUs) had impressive seasons and Brian Lee Jr. (36 tackles) was also solid in a reserve role.

End Jamehl Wiley (16 tackles) had an injury-marred campaign but fellow defensive linemen Khairi Manns (42), Xavier Mitchell (38), Josh Lezin (28), Justin Sambu (21) and Dorian Royal (16)  had productive second halves as the defense held teams to 18 points per game over the last six games after allowing 37.8 ppg in the first five.

UMaine will have a challenging non-conference schedule with FBS teams New Mexico and Boston College along with FCS team Colgate. Perennial FCS title contender James Madison is leaving the CAA and moving up to the FCS.

Barring major injuries, UMaine should contend for the CAA title and an NCAA playoff berth.