Michael Gerace has emerged as a key member of the offensive line this season for the University of Maine football team. Credit: Courtesy of Peter Buehner

ORONO, Maine —- Last fall, Michael Gerace was playing high school football.

He was a two-time, first-team all-county and all-conference offensive guard at the John Carroll School in Bel Air, Maryland. The two-year captain also played some on the defensive line.

To crack the lineup at a Division I school as a true freshman is difficult, especially on the offensive line, but Gerace did just that at the University of Maine. And he has done so playing a new position.

The Black Bears’ center also has started at left guard for the Colonial Athletic Association champions, who play Jacksonville (Alabama) State in Saturday’s NCAA Football Championship Subdivision second-round playoff game at Alfond Stadium.

“He has exceeded expectations,” UMaine offensive line coach Pat Denecke said. “Quarterback and the offensive line are the two hardest positions for true freshmen to come in and play.”

“Mentally, besides quarterback, the offensive line has some of the hardest stuff to do,” sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson said. “And switching positions from center to guard is tough. Lot of credit to him.”

The center also is responsible for making the calls on each play to dictate the blocking schemes for the other linemen.

“He’s had some older guys around him like Cody (Levy) and (Liam) Dobson helping him out but he’s been doing it,” Ferguson said. “He has to put (the line) in the right position. He also has to protect (the quarterback), too. There’s a physical part. He’s obviously a very talented kid in that category.”

The 6-foot-3, 285-pound Gerace admitted that when he came to school for workouts in July, there was a lot to learn, especially with a new position.

“It was a big adjustment. It was challenging,” Gerace said. “I first had to learn how to snap (the ball). And then I had to be able to make the calls for the whole offense.”

The challenges were as much mental as physical as he spent many hours studying film and meeting with Denecke.

“He came into camp very prepared,” UMaine head coach Joe Harasymiak said. “He proved he could do it. To come in and play right away, you have to have a good football IQ and that’s his best attribute.”

Both coaches pointed to Gerace’s strength and physical development as contributing to his smooth transition to the college game.

He credited his teammates, including Levy, center-guard Chris Mulvey and Ferguson, with playing a significant role in his development.

Gerace started at center in UMaine’s 31-28 win over Football Bowl Subdivision team Western Kentucky on Sept. 8 because Mulvey was sidelined by a hand injury. He had played some the previous week in the season-opening win over New hampshire.

Gerace said successful line play comes down primarily to technique.

“If you have good technique, you can win just about every battle. If you have poor technique, strength can get you only so far,” Gerace said.

He will see plenty of playing time on Saturday. He started at left guard in UMaine’s Nov. 17 win over Elon as junior Migel Garcia was sidelined with an injury. Mulvey started at center.

Gerace could start at either position or play both against Jacksonville State.

“Whichever one they need me to play,” one of three sons raised by Michael and Michele Gerace said.

The UMaine offensive line, which had to be rebuilt after losing three long-time starters to graduation, has played well. The Black Bears have averaged 29.3 points per game over their past six games and have allowed 23 sacks in 11 games, which is fourth best in the CAA.

Gerace, who chose to attend UMaine because he had such a “great bond with the coaches and the players,” said playing as a freshman has been fun.

It’s a “dream come true. “I’m so glad I had the opportunity to come here and to play (right away). I’m trying to make the best of this opportunity,” Gerace said.