It is a year of transition for the University of Maine’s football program.
Jack Cosgrove stepped down after 23 years as the head coach last November, and a few weeks later the reins were turned over to Joe Harasymiak, who became the youngest head coach in Division I at age 30.
Former Black Bear defensive coordinator Harasymiak and new offensive coordinator Liam Coen have brought some new ideas and formations designed to make the Black Bears more diversified and less predictable on offense.
Maine’s predictable offense and inability to make plays in clutch situations last season resulted in the team’s poor rankings in categories like red zone efficiency (11th among 12 teams, 69.7 percent); fourth-down conversions (10th, 22.7 percent) and third-down efficiency (9th, 33.7 percent).
Predictable offenses are much easier to defend against.
Stalled drives are not only momentum-changers, they require the defense to spend more time on the field and the defense eventually wears down.
The 2016 Black Bears have the potential to be significantly better offensively.
And they will have to be if they are going to finish above .500 after coming off a disappointing 3-8 campaign. It was Maine’s third losing season over the last four seasons..
The offensive optimism stems from the development of senior quarterback Dan Collins; a talented and deep receiving corps; a stable of good running backs and a more experienced offensive line.
Collins has a strong arm but completed just 49.4 percent of his passes, and he had more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (6) a year ago. He would often force passes into double and triple coverage.
But he has had an outstanding training camp and won the job from junior Drew Belcher, who was the team’s second-leading rusher (314 yards, 88 carries).
Collins has to have a breakthrough season if the Bears are going to contend for a postseason berth.
Collins’ decision-making and leadership have been particularly pleasing to Harasymiak.
“And I think our offense is a better fit for Danny,” Harasymiak said.
Belcher and redshirt freshman John Walsh are vying for the backup role.
Temple University transfer Zaire Williams has teamed with Nigel Beckford to supply Maine with a quality one-two punch at running back. Beckford, who is coming off labrum (shoulder) surgery, has rushed for 997 yards on 241 carries the past two seasons, and he has led the team in rushing each year. Sophomores Darian Davis-Ray and North Yarmouth’s Joe Fitzpatrick and true freshman Josh Mack provide depth.
Maine’s 115.4 rushing yards per game and 3.4 yards per rush were 10th best in the league last season.
The receiving corps should be one of the team’s strengths.
All-CAA receivers Micah Wright (61 catches, 818 yards) and Jordan Dunn (56-for-595) are game-breakers who will command respect from opposing defensive backs and Jaleel Reed (14-for-104), Jared Osumah (14-110) and junior Marquise Adams will take on more prominent roles in the new offense. Fairfield’s Spencer Carey is transitioning from defense to receiver.
Beckford caught 17 balls out of the backfield a year ago.
If the Black Bears can establish a running game, that will create some one-on-one matchups for the wide receivers that could lead to big plays. And if the defensive backs give them a cushion, Maine’s short passing game should flourish.
The running game needs to be more explosive.
Last year, Maine went 1-for-7 in games in which its longest run from scrimmage was less than 20 yards. Maine had four games in which the longest run was 15 yards or less.
The offensive line of center Daniel Burrows, guards Isiah Brooks and John Reddington and tackles Cody Levy, Jamil Demby and Holden’s Max Andrews of Bangor’s John Bapst High School should be noticeably improved. Demby would be starting but has been sidelined by a knee injury, and he will miss the opener at the University of Connecticut Sept. 1.
Brooks has started all 22 games. Andrews also can play center.
Josh Ingalls of Wells, Alejandro Alvarado and Samuel Cooper are capable backups in the line.
Maine allowed just 18 sacks last fall, tied for second-lowest in the CAA.
The Black Bears will use a fullback in some formations and Julian Dunn will handle that chore while the tight end will be Jeremy Salmon (11-for-90). Jason Simonovich is another reliable tight end.
Their defense will be revamped as four of the top five tacklers have departed, including the leading three tacklers.
But Harasymiak is quick to point out that there will be three four-year starters in the middle of the defense “and anytime you can have that, you have to feel good.”
The young coach acknowledged that there will be “growing pains” but he fully expects the defense to be solid again. Maine was third in total defense a year ago (316.8 yards per game allowed).
Tackle Patrick Ricard was an All-CAA first teamer a year ago and was a preseason All-American after leading the league in tackles for losses (16.5) and ranking sixth in sacks (7) last fall. Inside linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga was a first-teamer two years ago. Darius Greene will be the nose guard, and he was chosen the team’s defenseman lineman last fall (24 tackles).
Tshimanga missed three games due to injury a year ago but still was in on 37 tackles.
The relentless Ricard, who had 53 tackles, is going to face a variety of double- and triple-teams that should enable the other defensive linemen and linebackers to penetrate the pocket and pressure the quarterback.
Maine’s 32 sacks were second-best in the CAA a year ago, and the rushing defense (110.8 ypg) also was second.
Sophomore Sterling Sheffield (16 tackles, 2.5 sacks) had an impressive freshman season will be a starting linebacker as will junior Austin Brown (11). The cornerbacks will be junior Najee Goode (33 tackles, team-leading eight pass breakups), and either Josh Huffman, a redshirt freshman, or true freshman Emanuel Patterson.
Junior Jason Matovu (44 tackles) will be the strong safety and DeAndre Scott, also a junior, will be the free safety.
Junior Darrius Hart, who missed all but one game due to injury last year, Sinmisola Demuren (34 tackles) and sophomore Jeffrey DeVaughn (15) also will see plenty of duty in the secondary.
Schuyler Huntington, Andrew Stevens, Dakota Tarbox of Dayton and Thornton Academy in Saco, Uchenna Egwuonwu, Connor Walsh, Alejandro Oregon and Jean Point-Dujour are defensive linemen along with Charles Mitchell.
Zachary Hume, Ben Davis and Davis Turner of Oxford will be in the picture at the linebacker slots.
Maine has allowed a league-low 185 passing yards per game over the past five seasons.
Special teams were problematic a year ago as Maine was last in the CAA in extra-point efficiency (77.8 percent) and 11th in kickoff return and punt return average. The Black Bears also were eighth in field goal efficiency (12-for-21).
Harasymiak has placed a high priority on improved special teams.
John Bapst’s Patrick Leonard will be the new placekicker and redshirt freshman Derek Deoul will handle the punting, kickoffs and long field goal attempts.
Harasymiak’s energy, enthusiasm and imagination will be plusses but the schedule will be challenging with FBS teams UConn and Toledo to open the season and four of the top five teams in the conference based on the preseason coaches poll also on it.
“First and foremost, we want to earn respect,” Harasymiak said. “We want to put ourselves in position in the the fourth quarter to win games.”