ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine football team had an anemic offense last season.
The Black Bears (5-6) were among the least productive in the Football Championship Subdivision, ranking No. 114 of 121 teams in total offense (259.1 yards per game), 119th in first downs (13.4 per contest) and 107th in scoring (16.4 points per game).
This fall, with the makings of a stingy defense again in place, coach Jack Cosgrove’s UMaine team must get the ball in the end zone more often.
With two quarterbacks still developing, a more seasoned offensive line, a thin backfield and youth at wide receiver, the Black Bears nonetheless expect significant improvement.
“We’re far more experienced on offense this year than we were last year, especially at the quarterback and offensive line positions. We might not be at the wide receiver position, but we have tremendous optimism,” said Cosgrove, who is in his 23rd season.
UMaine, which opens Saturday at Boston College of the Atlantic Coast Conference, has the building blocks of another strong defense.
The Black Bears boast difference-makers in senior defensive end Trevor Bates of Westbrook, an All-Colonial Athletic Association second-team pick, and junior noseguard Patrick Ricard, and All-CAA first-team junior linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga and senior LB Cabrinni Goncalves.
“We have really good depth in the front seven. The losses we had in the secondary, I’m calmed down by the fact we have some very good young players that are ready to emerge,” Cosgrove said.
Even so, UMaine must score more often to challenge in the CAA.
Inexperience on the offensive line and at quarterback hampered the unit’s effectiveness last year. Those areas have been shored up.
Redshirt junior Dan Collins and sophomore Drew Belcher go into the opener still fighting to earn the starting nod, although both could see action.
“They’ve both improved,” said Cosgrove, who on Monday did not rule out a platoon system. “That decision will be based on ability and not that we’re not experienced enough or we’re not good enough.”
Collins (77-for-143, 908 yards, 9 TDs, 2 interceptions) is coming off a shoulder injury and surgery that cost him the final five games of 2014. Belcher (77-152, 704 yards, 3 TDs, 3 INTs) also ran for 312 yards and two scores and is gaining confidence with his knowledge of the scheme.
The line is anchored by All-CAA first-team center Bruce Johnson, a senior third-year starter. He is flanked by sophomore guard Daniel Burrows and senior guard Ben Wezel, while sophomores Jamil Demby and Isaiah Brooks are the tackles.
Senior guard Dan Carriker is sidelined by an undisclosed injury, leaving UMaine lacking in depth.
Sophomore tailback Nigel Beckford, the top rusher last season with 471 yards and five TDs, will be the main man running the ball.
With seniors Nigel Jones (concussions) and Isaiah Jones (knee) done for the season and Jerickson Fedrick having left school, Beckford’s backups are Goncalves, who will play two ways, and senior Darius Benders.
UMaine has some muscle at H-back in junior Sean Reuss and at tight end with junior Jeremy Salmon (13 rec., 288 yards, 1 TD). Junior tight end Max Andrews of Holden is working his way back from a preseason injury.
In the receiving corps, the Bears must replace productive graduates Damarr Aultman, who is in camp with the Miami Dolphins, and Art Williams, who combined for 64 catches, 672 yards and five scores in 2014.
Junior Jordan Dunn (33 rec., 282 yads, 3 TDs) is the leading returnee, but is coming off an injury. Other targets include sophomore Jared Osumah (13-128), redshirt freshman Micah Wright, soph Jaleel Reed and seniors John Hardy of Portland (the holder on kicks) and Justin Flores.
Last year, the Black Bears were held to 12 points or less six times and scored more than 20 on only three occasions.
“There’s a lot of growth that took place on the offensive side of the ball last year that we expect to continue this year,” Cosgrove said.
UMaine is counting on senior kicker Sean Decloux to step up his game after converting 10 of 12 field goals and 16 of 20 PATs a year ago. He also will be the punter.
The defense has significant experience, spearheaded by leading tacklers Mulumba Tshimanga (95 tackles) and Goncalves (74 tackles, 3 INTs) at linebacker. Senior Randy Samuels (38 tackles, 2 INTs) also returns at a deep position that includes sophomores Zach Hume (46 tackles, 5.5 sacks), Austin Brown (23 tackles) and Ben Davis (16 tackles) and senior John McCabe of Winslow.
“There’s a good crew of linebackers. That’s probably the deepest group that we have,” Cosgrove said.
UMaine was among the best defenses in the country in 2014, ranking eighth in pass efficiency defense, 13th in passing yards allowed (172.2 ypg), 15th in total defense (316.7 ypg) and 34th against the run (144.5 ypg).
The line is anchored by Bates (60 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 3 INTs) and senior Mike Kozlakowski, who missed most of the last two seasons with arm injuries. Ricard (46 tackles, 4.5 sacks) is a handful playing alongside tackle Darius Greene (33 tackles).
Depth on the line will come from untested underclassmen.
Senior cornerback Sherrod Baltimore (27 tackles) is the leader of a youthful secondary that lost mainstays Khari Al-Mateen, Axel Ofori and Patrick Pascal to graduation. Sophomores Najee Goode (19 tackles), Tayvon Hall and A.J. Dawson (27 tackles) all will see action at corner.
Sophomore Jason Matovu and redshirt freshman Sinmisola Demuren are vying for the starting free safety spot, while sophomore Darius Hart (14 tackles) and redshirt freshman Mozai Nelson are the strong safeties.
“We have a lot of sophomores and freshmen that need to step up and play the game on Saturday the way they play on the practice field,” said Cosgrove, who is optimistic about the season.
“We’re excited about the group, where they are and what they could become,” he said.