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Are you ready for some (Black Bear) football? Previewing UMaine's 2021 season

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Are you ready for some (Black Bear) football? Previewing UMaine's 2021 season (photo courtesy goblackbears.com/University of Maine Athletics)

ORONO – As the University of Maine football team prepares to open the 2021 season, they hope for a return to normalcy in more ways than one. Like everyone, they’re hopeful that vaccinations and other COVID protocols will not only keep them safe but also reduce the distractions and upheavals that have been a regular feature of the past seventeen months. In a football sense, they aim to return to the physical style that served them so well in their deep playoff run of 2018, when they came within a game of playing for the national championship.

Head Coach Nick Charlton begins his third season at the helm of the Black Bears and looks to build on those things that went well in the aborted spring season. After the Colonial Athletic Association opted out of a fall season in 2020, most teams attempted to play a reduced spring schedule. Maine had solid wins at Albany and against Stony Brook bookended by one-sided losses to Delaware and Villanova, then lost out on a chance to bounce back when their games with Rhode Island and New Hampshire were cancelled due to Covid outbreaks on those teams.

When things were good in those Albany and Stony Brook contests, they were very good, as UMaine generated a diverse offensive attack and made big plays on defense. When they were bad, the Bears were unable to maintain drives offensively or make key stops on defense. Establishing consistency is crucial to any effort to return to playoff contention in 2021.

DEFENSE

Historically, the strength of Maine football has been the defense, known for years as the “Black Hole.” But at times last spring (and in the fall of 2019), they were more of a white dwarf. In the four games earlier this year, opponents rushed for an average of 212 yards per game and in their two losses, the Bears gave up more than 400 total yards to both Delaware and Villanova. To add to the challenge ahead, Maine lost their top defensive player, linebacker Deshawn Stevens, who took advantage of the new transfer rules to join the West Virginia Mountaineers of the top-tier FBS ranks. Stevens led the Black Bears with 36 tackles in four spring games in his return from a 2019 injury. Maine also saw the departure of linebacker Myles Taylor, who had stepped into the starting lineup last spring, but transferred to FCS powerhouse South Dakota State. The defense also failed to get to opposing quarterbacks in the spring, registering a mere two sacks in four games and were unable to get many takeaways, forcing only two turnovers in those contests.

Defensive Coordinator Mike Ryan would like to return to the high-risk/high-reward style of defense that propelled the Bears in their 10-win 2018 campaign. The aggressive Black Hole unit totaled 47 sacks that year to go with 18 interceptions and 20 forced fumbles and allowed a paltry 79 rushing yards per game.

Stopping the run begins up front and Maine will look to Defensive Ends Jamehl Wiley (6’2, 250), a senior from New Castle, Delaware, and Khairi Manns (6’3, 230), a sophomore from New Rochelle, New York, to continue the progress they made in the spring. Wiley had 27 tackles in four games and Manns added 23, including three tackles for a loss, not to mention a pass breakup. In the middle, the Bears will turn to John Costanza (6’4, 240), a sophomore from Brick Township, New Jersey, who racked up nine tackles in the spring, and Josh Lezin (6’1, 283), a junior from Jackson, New Jersey, who had 15 tackles.

They hope to offset the losses at linebacker with returnees Adrian Otero (6’0, 235), a senior from Hazelton, Pennsylvania, who had 25 tackles last spring, and Xavier Nurse (6’3, 215), a sophomore out of Brooklyn, New York, who contributed four tackles in part-time duty. Maine also has high expectations for graduate transfer Ray Miller (6’1, 230), who had 179 tackles, five sacks, and 14.5 tackles for a loss over the course of 34 games at Campbell University in North Carolina. Miller was a three-time selection to Phil Steele’s Preseason All-Conference Team in the Big South. The Black Bears also look for solid contributions from redshirt freshmen Christian Thomas (6’3, 205) from Camden, New Jersey and Vince Thomas (5’10, 170), a transfer from Navy, who is originally from Raleigh, North Carolina.

The strength of Maine’s defense is likely to be found in their secondary, which boasts an impressive degree of depth as the season gets underway. Katley Joseph (5’11, 175) from Ottawa, who returns after missing the spring season, had 35 tackles and seven pass breakups in 2019. He’s joined by veterans Rich Carr (5’8, 185) from Philadelphia, who totaled 54 tackles in 2019 and another dozen last spring, Robby Riobe (5’11, 180) of Everett, Massachusetts, who led all DBs with 25 tackles in the spring, and Maryland transfer Fo Bazzie (6’0, 200), who tallied six tackles in two spring games. The Bears also welcome the return of speedy Shaquille St. Lot (6’0, 195), a senior from Montreal, Austin Ambush (6’3, 195), a sophomore from Laytonsville, Maryland who picked up 12 tackles and a pass breakup as a true freshman, and Benito Speight (5’10, 185), a senior from Richmond, Virginia.

The key for the defense will be to stop the run and put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and that will begin on opening night, as they try and contain Delaware’s All-Conference running back Dejoun Lee, who gained 90 yards on 14 carries against the Bears last game, and quarterback Nolan Henderson, who completed 16 of 24 passes for 146 yards and is also a threat to run.

OFFENSE

Coordinator Andrew Dresner has to be happy to have quarterback Joe Fagnano (6’3, 220) back to lead the Maine offense as he enters his junior season. The product of Williamsport, Pennsylvania led the CAA with an average of nearly 199 passing yards per game in the spring and threw eight touchdown passes with only one interception and ran for another 59 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His continued growth is crucial to the Black Bears’ success, but the coaches also have great confidence in backup QB Derrick Robertson (6’3, 195), a redshirt freshman from Yonkers, New York.

Fagnano has no shortage of targets, led by All-Conference wide receiver Andre Miller (6’2, 220) from Old Town. Miller led the CAA in receptions per game, hauling in 21 catches for 348 yards and six touchdowns. The co-captain has been on the receiving end of two of the three longest touchdowns in team history, with an 87-yarder against Richmond and a team-record 90-yard catch at Albany. The Black Bears are also excited to see the return of the dual threat Devin Young (5’10, 185), a senior from Binghamton, New York who sat out last spring, but had 41 receptions for 593 yards and four touchdowns in 2019, as well as rushing for another 167 yards on 36 carries. Jacob Hennie (5’11, 185), a graduate student out of Rancho Cucamonga, California is a strong slot receiver who grabbed seven passes for 97 yards and a score in the spring. At tight end, big Shawn Bowman (6’5, 243) from Bear, Delaware, caught nine passes for 82 yards and a touchdown and is also an excellent blocker. They’ll also count on UConn transfer Zavier Scott (6’1, 207), who had seven receptions for 101 yards last spring, Michael Monios (5’10, 170), a senior from Montreal, and Montigo Moss (6’1, 200), a sophomore from Charlotte, North Carolina, and the son of NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss.

Maine has a solid stable of running backs, led by sophomore Freddie Brock (5’10, 170) from Rochester, New York, who emerged from the pack in the spring with 165 yards and an average of 5.7 yards per carry. Elijah Barnwell (5’11, 2010), a junior from Piscataway, New Jersey ran for 125 yards in the abbreviated spring season, and sophomore Tavion Banks (5’10, 200) from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania will be in the mix, along with Lafayette transfer John Gay (6’0, 190).

Games (and seasons) are often won or lost in the trenches and the Black Bears are optimistic that the offensive line will be a strength of the team in the coming season. They’ll be led by senior Michael Gerace (6’2, 285) of Bel Air, Maryland, a Phil Steele Preseason All-Conference selection, who has started twenty-four consecutive games. Junior Matthias Staalsoe (6’3, 305) from Copenhagen has been a force to reckon with and they also return starter and Oxford Hills graduate Gunnar Docos (6’5, 309), Kevin Jones (6’6’, 292), a junior from Coatesville, Maryland, and have added Bucknell transfer P.J. Barr (6’3, 285), a former All Patriot League selection. Tyrie Francois (6’5, 339), a junior from Auburndale, Florida is also likely to see significant time, and the Bears are pleased with the work of Bucksport’s David Gross (6’1, 300), a redshirt freshman.

SPECIAL TEAMS

In the CAA, the margin of error is pretty small; games are often decided by what happens on special teams.

Coordinator Jared Keyte has several options in the fold, including Florida Atlantic transfer Vladimir Rivas, a senior from Miami who could end up handling kickoffs and last spring’s kicker, Jonny Messina, a transfer from Stetson who had a pair of field goals and was 12-12 on PATs. Senior David Gelb from Manapalan, New Jersey is expected to serve as the punter. He averaged 36.0 yards per kick and seven of his twenty-one punts landed inside the 20-yard line. Freddie Brock will likely be the kickoff return specialist, perhaps along with Devin Young, who averaged 21.3 yards per return in 2019 or Andre Miller, who may also return punts. Lafayette transfer John Gay, who served in that role for the Leopards, could get an opportunity as well.

THE SCHEDULE

Maine opens the season on Thursday, September 2, as they play host to Delaware on the new turf at Morse Field at Alfond Stadium. Delaware is one of the preseason favorites, ranked #5 in the country in the STATS Perform FCS Poll. After that, the Black Bears take to the road to face the #2 team in the nation, James Madison University, who lost in the national semifinals last spring. Maine comes home to face non-conference foe Merrimack on September 18, but then jumps back into the fire as they travel to Dekalb, Illinois for a first-ever meeting with the Huskies of Northern Illinois, one of two FBS opponents on the schedule. That opening four game stretch is brutal and may go a long way toward determining whether the Black Bears will contend for a postseason berth. Maine has Elon and William & Mary at Alfond Stadium in October before playing four of their final five games on the road, including an FBS showdown with old Yankee Conference foe UMass on November 13 and the regular season finale with rival New Hampshire the following Saturday.

THE OUTLOOK

It’s never easy to project how Maine or anyone else in the CAA will do because the margin of error is so small in the highly competitive conference. The preseason poll picked the Black Bears ninth out of twelve teams, which is also where they were picked in 2018 when they went to the final four. James Madison is the heavy conference favorite and Delaware and Villanova certainly return strong clubs, while Richmond also looks to be a playoff contender. Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Albany could be in the mix as well, and nearly every season a team rises up from the lower reaches of that preseason poll to surprise the so-called experts. If the past is any indication, Maine would have to finish no worse than 7-4 to have a shot at the playoffs, with the league usually getting three to five teams into the 24-team playoff field. A 6-2 conference record is probably more than enough to earn a berth and a surprise win over an FBS opponent like Massachusetts (who Maine beat at Gillette Stadium a few years ago) would certainly help boost their credentials.

Whatever happens, the Black Bears and their fans are hoping for a season where the focus is football; they have their first opportunity in two years to play a full schedule.

Last modified on Wednesday, 25 August 2021 07:34

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