Eastern Washington Eagles Mitchell Johnson (94) and Jonah Jordan (91) sack Maine's quarterback Chris Ferguson during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, Dec.15, 2018, in Cheney, Wash. Credit: Kathy Plonka | AP

The University of Maine football team has been identified by AthlonSports.com as one of the six teams expected to contend for next season’s Football Championship Subdivision title.

The Black Bears reached the FCS semifinals for the first time in school history last season after winning the Colonial Athletic Association championship for the second time in six years. UMaine finished 10-4 (7-1 in the CAA) and was beaten 50-19 by Eastern Washington.

The other five contenders were defending two-time FCS champ North Dakota State, which has won seven of the past eight titles, along with Eastern Washington, South Dakota State, California Davis and James Madison.

North Dakota State beat Eastern Washington 38-24 in the championship game after knocking out SDSU in the semis.

UMaine returns eight starters on offense and eight on defense along with its punters and place-kicker.

In assessing the 2019 Black Bears, Craig Haley of Athlonsports.com wrote “[Nick] Charlton was elevated from OC [offensive coordinator] to head coach after Joe Haramiak’s departure [to the University of Minnesota]. He’s well-versed with all the offensive talent on the defending CAA champion and the defense is also loaded even with the loss of All-American linebacker Sterling Sheffield. It’s key that [quarterback Chris] Ferguson has a healthier season under center. The Black Bears played nine road games in 2018 and this year’s slate isn’t any easier including [Football Bowl Subdivision] trips to Georgia Southern and Liberty.”

Charlton said it’s nice for UMaine to be labeled a title contender and that it presents a new challenge for the program.

“We have high expectations. That’s what we want to have [every year],” said Charlton, who would like to string together a number of playoff seasons. “We have to take things a day at a time, and I’m confident the team will do that.”

UMaine’s playoff appearance was its first since its 2013 CAA championship campaign. The Black Bears also qualified for the 2011 FCS playoffs.

Charlton said the 2018 playoff run, which included a 55-27 home win over Jacksonville State and a 23-18 victory at Weber State, has really helped with recruiting.

“Our recruiting [in recent years] is a big reason we are where we are today,” Charlton said.

UMaine has already landed two midyear recruits who joined the program for the second semester. They are linebacker Xavier Nurse of Brooklyn, New York, and tight end Ori Jean-Charles, who transferred from Football Bowl Subdivision school Louisville.

The 6-foot-3, 206-pound Nurse had 45 tackles, five sacks, six tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and two interceptions (one for a touchdown) at Erasmus High School last fall. He earned enough credits to graduate from high school after the first semester.

“He is doing a great job. He’s a really impressive kid to look at. He was a very talented high school player,” Charlton said.

The 6-2, 225-pound Jean-Charles is an athletic player.

“He’s a really smart player,” said Charlton, who added that Jean-Charles was an exceptional high school player.

He said having the two of them involved in the spring program is a “huge advantage for them” in that they can develop themselves in the weight room, bond with their teammates and take a full course load.

He feels both players will contend for playing time next season.

The Black Bears have landed at least five other players who have verbally committed per their social media accounts.

Under NCAA guidelines, Charlton cannot comment on incoming players until they sign their National Letters of Intent. The regular signing period for Division I football begins next Wednesday.

The verbal commits are 6-0, 175-pound safety Robby Riobe from Everett, Massachusetts; punter/place-kicker Brian Cooey (6-2, 185) of Blackwood, New Jersey; offensive lineman Max Lovblad (6-7, 300) from Sweden; defensive end-outside linebacker Jacob Tuiasosopo (6-5, 240) of Waldorf, Maryland; and quarterback Joseph Fagnano (6-1, 170) of Williamsport, Pennsylvania.