ORONO, Maine —- With an experienced offensive line that averages 303 pounds per man, the Colonial Athletic Association’s No. 7 rusher in Josh Mack and a talented and deep receiving corps, the University of Maine football team should be able to put points on the board if redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Ferguson can produce a consistent first season.
The Black Bears must replace third-team All-American and two-time All-CAA first-team defensive tackle Pat Ricard, three-time All-CAA first-team linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga and standout defensive lineman Darius Greene. They also must survive a brutal early-season schedule in order to again make a run for a Football Championship Subdivision postseason berth.
The Black Bears went 6-5 last season, 5-3 in the CAA, and would have made the playoffs by beating archrival New Hampshire in their season finale. But UNH prevailed 24-21 and earned a playoff spot.
UMaine defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman likes what he has seen from his defense during the preseason.
“I’m confident in them. They play hard, they play physical and I’m really happy with the way they swarm to the ball and their tempo,” said Hetherman.
He said the defense is quicker than last year and bigger in a few positions. But the strength of the defense is the secondary.
Senior Najee Goode (40 tackles) and sophomore Manny Patterson were the starting corners a year ago and senior DeAndre Scott (44) was a starter at free safety. Redshirt junior strong safety Darrius Hart logged 47 tackles to rank fifth on the team.
Goode, with 30 career games under his belt, was a third-team All-CAA pick. Patterson tied for fourth in the CAA in pass breakups (10).
There is plenty of depth with seniors Jason Matovu (67 tackles) and Tayvon Hall and juniors Jeff DeVaughn, Sinmisola Demuren and Josh Huffman.
Like any secondary, they will rely on an effective pass rush to enable them to make plays. Any respectable quarterback will pick apart a defense if he has plenty of time to find a receiver.
That means ends Dakota Tarbox of Dayton, who played at Thornton Academy in Saco, and Kayon Whitaker, tackles Charles Mitchell and Alejandro Oregon, and nose tackle Huntington must get pressure on the quarterback. Jamehl Wiley, Skylar Bowman and Connor Walsh will also get reps. Tarbox and Huntington are the only seniors.
A young, athletic linebacking corps is led by junior Sterling Sheffield, who was third in tackles with 65, including 11 for loss and five sacks. Sophomore Taji Lowe played in 10 games and Jaron Grayer is a much-improved redshirt freshman. Fairfield’s Spencer Carey, redshirt freshman DeShawn Stevens and Demuren also are in the linebacking picture.
UMaine was 11th in the 12-team CAA in pass defense last year, allowing 223 yards per game. It was 10th in total defense (392.7 ypg).
“I’m not worried about our pass rush. I think we have some linebackers who can (pressure the quarterback) on third down. I’m more concerned about stopping the running game,” said second-year head coach Joe Harasymiak.
Offensive coordinator Liam Coen said establishing a strong running game is essential “especially with a redshirt freshman quarterback.
“You have to be able to run the football to win. And it all starts up front,” said Coen.
UMaine ranked ninth in CAA rushing last fall (140.5 ypg) and was eighth in third-down conversions (37.3 percent) and ninth in time of possession (28:54).
The offensive line should be stout with seasoned seniors in All-CAA third-team tackle Jamil Demby, guards John Reddington and Isaiah Brooks and junior tackle Cody Levy along with redshirt freshman center Chris Mulvey. Seniors Dan Burrows and Michael Supp could contribute if they can get healthy.
UMaine allowed only 14 sacks last year, tied for fourth fewest in the CAA.
Sophomore Mack (140 carries, 712 yards), junior Darian Davis-Ray (62-280) and Joe Fitzpatrick of North Yarmouth, who missed last year due to injury, will be the primary ball carriers along with senior Nigel Beckford.
Beckford led the team in rushing in 2014 (471 yds.) and 2015 (526 yds.) but was limited by injury to 45 carries a year ago. Davis-Ray returned to the team recently after a brief suspension for alleged violations of the UMaine student code of conduct.
Shifty freshman Ramon Jefferson may also contribute.
Seniors Jason Simonovich and Brenden O’Neil and junior Julian Dunn are the tight ends and redshirt junior quarterback Drew Belcher has been moved to H-back. Belcher could become a valuable playmaker at a position that was rarely targeted in 2016.
Senior Jared Osumah (22 catches, 308 yards), sophomore Earnest Edwards (20-334) and senior Jaleel Reed (19-325) headline the speedy receiving corps. The dynamic Micah Wright (44-688) is serving an indefinite suspension along with defensive lineman Uchenna Egwuonwu for alleged violations of the UMaine student code of conduct.
Marquise Adams (11-136) and Jaquan Blair (3-39) also are viable targets.
Ferguson, who won the quarterback job over graduate student transfer Max Staver and Belcher, has exhibited a strong and accurate arm and a willingness to take what the defense gives him. Departed Dan Collins was a third-team All-CAA pick.
Freshman Kenny Doak will be counted on to provide a legitimate place-kicker after UMaine went a dismal 1-for-7 on field goals in 2016. That contributed to UMaine’s league-worst 54.8 percent red-zone conversion rate.
The Black Bears’ first five games include road contests against defending FCS titlist James Madison and playoff teams Villanova and New Hampshire. There is also a Football Bowl Subdivision road contest at Central Florida. UMaine opens at UNH on Aug. 31.
If the Black Bears are to vie for a playoff berth, they will need to win their only home game during the opening stretch against Bryant, and at least one of the three CAA road games before closing out the season strong.