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‘Elevate The Standard’ – A UMaine football season preview

August 27, 2019
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UMaine quarterback Chris Ferguson. UMaine quarterback Chris Ferguson. (edge photo by Kevin Bennett)

ORONO - What do you do for an encore if you’re the University of Maine football team, coming off the most successful season in school history? “Elevate The Standard.”

That’s the message that new boss Nick Charlton has preached since he got the job after the departure of Joe Harasymiak to the University of Minnesota.

Charlton, the youngest coach in all of Division I football, wasn’t just spouting a slogan. He and his staff recruited relentlessly, bringing in a talented class of freshman and a number of transfers from the FCS and FBS levels with the dual purpose of filling holes and building the depth required to get where the Black Bears hope to be – playoff regulars and national title contenders on a yearly basis.

Maine returns a talented nucleus on offense, led by junior Quarterback Chris Ferguson, who threw for 2372 yards and 22 touchdowns last year. Ferguson has demonstrated more growth in the preseason and is one of the leaders of the team both on and off the field. He’ll have the opportunity to throw to a deep and talented receiver corps, including Earnest Edwards of Rochester, N.Y. “Electric Ernie” caught 53 passes for 839 yards and ten touchdowns last year and is one of the most dangerous players in FCS football.

He’s joined in the starting lineup by clutch wideout Jaquan Blair, a senior from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who had 43 receptions for 572 yards in 2018, and Old Town’s own Dre Miller, who caught 16 passes for 287 yards last season. Sophomore Devin Young is also a big part of the offense, both as a receiver (33 catches, 221 yards) and running the jet sweep (8.6 yards per carry).

All-conference running back Ramon Jefferson left the program but was quickly replaced by FBS transfer Emmanuel Reed from Buffalo. Reed rushed for over 1,000 yards two seasons ago and began last year on the Doak Walker Watch List, the award given to the nation’s top running back. The Bears also have tough-as-nails senior Joe Fitzpatrick from Cheverus back, as well as Northern Illinois transfer Jordan Rowell, who’ll miss the early part of the season with a knee injury. Don’t be surprised to see true freshman Curtis Murray out there, either. At 5’10”, 190 pounds, Murray has looked very good in preseason.

The Black Bears graduated two tight ends, including Drew Belcher of the Arizona Cardinals, but still have redshirt freshman Shawn Bowman (6’5, 243) and brought in Louisville transfer Ori Jean-Charles and Kevin Falaki from Assumption.

The key to an offense is the O-Line and this group is loaded. All American Liam Dobson, a 6’3, 340-pound junior from Ottawa looks to be a future NFL player, and he’s joined by veteran center Chris Mulvey, and sophomores Michael Gerace, Tyler Royal, and Matthias Staalsoe, who grew up in Copenhagen. The Black Bear line averages 310 pounds while also being supremely athletic.

Topping last year’s defensive performance will be tough, as the “Black Hole” led the nation in run defense, allowing just 79.2 yards per game on the ground. Gone are all-conference stars Sterling Sheffield (now in Cincinnati Bengals camp), Jeffrey DeVaughn and Darius Hart, but Maine brings back a host of talented and experienced players. The linebacker trio of All-American Deshawn Stevens and all-conference selections Taji Lowe and Jaron Grayer may be the best in all of FCS, as they combined for 247 tackles, 39 tackles for a loss, and 16 sacks last year. The defensive line returns all four starters, including All-American Kayon Whitaker (9.5 sacks), Chuck Mitchell, Alejandro Oregon, and Jamehl Wiley, and have solid depth with people like Skyler Bowman, Josh Lezin, and big Justin Sambu.

Maine lost two starters in the secondary but they return the best cornerback in the FCS, Baltimore’s Manny Patterson, an All-American who led the nation in pass breakups and is on the Buck Buchanan Watch List for the top defensive player in the country, as well as Katley Joseph, who had 12 pass breakups and an interception as a true freshman last year. The Bears also get Joshua Huffman back from injury to start a strong safety, and sophomore Rich Carr, who had three interceptions and four breakups in his rookie season. They’ll have tremendous depth as well, with UConn transfer Jordan Swann back from an injury, veterans Shaquille St. Lot and Erick Robertson and Buffalo transfer Jeremiah Daddeboe.

Special teams also look to be a strength of the Black Bears, starting with clutch kicker Kenny Doak, who had two game-winners and a host of high-pressure field goals last season. Punter David Gelb has looked even stronger in preseason and Maine will hand the kickoff chores to freshman Cameron Carson, a left-footer from Leesburg, Virginia. The return game features Earnest Edwards, who returned two kicks for touchdowns last season, as well as Dre Miller, Jordan Swann and perhaps freshman Donovan Bunch.

Matching or exceeding last year’s run to the national semifinals won’t be easy but Maine’s players and staff embrace the high expectations that have them seventh in the country in both the STATS FCS and Coaches polls. Their 12-game schedule has no easy contests, at least on paper, starting with the opener against Sacred Heart on August 30. The Pioneers went 7-4 and narrowly missed the playoffs last year; they’re starting a transfer QB from Temple who passed for 245 yards against Notre Dame last season. Maine also faces Colgate in a non-conference game, a team that went to the national quarterfinals in 2018, and plays two FBS opponents in Georgia Southern and Liberty.

For a program that hasn’t posted consecutive winning seasons since 2002-03, starting the year in such a lofty perch is new territory, but Coach Charlton, a philosophy major at Boston College, is where he wants to be and has his players and coaches believing that the sky is the limit.

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