ORONO — There is an air of renewed confidence within the University of Maine football team as it prepares for Saturday’s 2008 opener at Big Ten mainstay Iowa.
The new FieldTurf surface on Morse Field at Alfond Stadium seems to have reinvigorated the Black Bears.
Sixteenth-year coach Jack Cosgrove said the clean look and forgiving feel of the turf has impacted the players’ mental approach and performance.
“It’s like fresh-cut grass every morning,” Cosgrove said. “They have a great state of mind. They’re competing out there at full speed with much more recklessness. We’ve really improved because of it.”
Like fresh-cut grass, this UMaine team has solid roots, but its individual blades must receive proper nurturing, patience and care to grow strong.
The Bears are coming off a 4-7 season (3-5 Colonial Athletic Association) during which they lost three games by seven points or less. They won three of their last four games, generating some momentum.
“It plays into the excitement our players have for the upcoming season,” Cosgrove said.
UMaine hopes a talented, veteran defense spearheaded by preseason All-America end Jovan Belcher and linebacker Andrew Downey can hold teams in check.
The Bears will be severely challenged by a schedule that includes Iowa, along with CAA powers James Madison, Richmond, Delaware, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
“It’s one of the toughest schedules ever put in front of a Maine football team,” Cosgrove said. “We play five teams that played in the NCAA playoffs last year who are all preseason top 15 or better.”
Defense should again be a strong point for UMaine as eight starters return, led by seniors Belcher, Downey and cornerback-turned safety Lamir Whetstone.
Belcher, who led the CAA in sacks and tackles for a loss in 2007, is the lone returnee on the line. He anchors a unit that includes junior end Jordan Stevens of Temple, a converted linebacker, along with senior tackle Jon Pirruccello and red-shirt freshman tackle Raibonne Charles of Windham.
“(Belcher’s) a special player,” Cosgrove said. “He’s a leader. He’s our captain.”
Junior college signees Eric Lee and Jonas Rousseau are also in the line mix.
Downey, who was third on the team last fall with 78 tackles despite missing two games with an injury, heads a linebacker corps that also features senior Sean Wasson and junior Mark Masterson.
“Last year we were one of the best in the conference at not letting people in the red zone (inside the 25-yard line), but we were the worst when they got in the red zone,” Downey said. “We’ve just got to keep people out of the end zone.”
The secondary is sprinkled with talent and experience, spearheaded by senior free safeties Whetstone and Jonathan Calderon, senior corner-back Lionel Nixon Jr. and junior strong safety Brandon McLaughlin. Junior corners Dominic Cusano and Steven Barker, junior safety Troy Haris and sophomore corner Derrick Harris are all game-tested.
“The secondary is really as deep as I’ve ever been around here,” Cosgrove said. “We have seven guys that have started for us. I like not only the depth, I like the ability.”
The offense returns a year older at key positions, including quarterback and wide receiver, although the Bears have replaced three-fifths of the line.
UMaine mounted a solid run attack last season behind shifty tailback Jhamal Fluellen, a senior who is the CAA’s lone returning 1,000-yard rusher. The line is paced by preseason All-CAA center Ryan Canary and senior tackle Chris Arnao.
Joining the mix up front are eastern Maine products in junior tackle Tyler Eastman of Old Town and redshirt freshman guard Steven Shea of Corinna. Sophomore Matt Barber is the other guard, while junior Alex Batanian is the sixth man.
“We definitely have some guys that are going to get their feet wet for the first time, so I think we’re going to show them how to play on the offensive line,” Canary said.
Their play will impact the further development of UMaine’s passing attack, which struggled in 2007 as Mike Brusko, then Adam Farkes, got their initiation to Division I.
Sophomore Farkes, who passed for 836 yards and seven touchdowns in parts of eight games, is a more confident leader. Brusko, a junior, also will take some snaps, but will be utilized more as a receiver.
Redshirt freshman Chris Treister of Cape Elizabeth is the No. 3 quarterback.
Improvement in the pass game has been notable as the quarterbacks and receivers continue to mature.
“We’re expecting to play our roles to a higher caliber this year,” Farkes said. “I think everyone’s got more confidence in themselves and in this whole offense.”
A developing corps of wide receivers is led by junior Landis Williams, who had a team-best 38 catches for 481 yards and six TDs a year ago. Senior Kenny Fersner and sophomores Tyrell Jones and Jeremy Kelley look to emerge as outside threats, while Fluellen is a target coming out of the backfield.
Redshirt freshman Jared Turcotte of Lewiston should provide versatility at H-back along with classmate Derek Session, while redshirt frosh Derek Buttles and senior Wellington Talkpa are the tight ends.
“I think you’ll see guys that will keep on getting better and better,” said offensive coordinator Kevin Bourgoin. “We’re young on offense and they’re going through the whole learning curve.”
The kicking game is a mix of experience and youth. Senior Kash Kiefer is a steady performer as the punter, while true freshmen Jordan Waxman and Bryan Harvey are dueling for the place-kicker spot as junior walk-on John Moloney of Farmington battles an injury.
“We’re going to be careful with it,” Cosgrove said, and do as best we can in terms of being productive. It’s something we’re hoping to develop.”