With Deshawn Stevens and quarterback Chris Ferguson sidelined for the season with injuries, it is up to the other two captains to lead the University of Maine football team on the field.
That is a monumental task for senior wide receiver Jaquan Blair and senior defensive end Kayon Whitaker, who are still participating in practices and games.
Stevens, a senior all-conference linebacker, is out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon, and junior quarterback Ferguson (foot) has also been relegated to the sideline.
The Black Bears, the defending Colonial Athletic Association champions and Football Championship Subdivision semifinalists have a slim chance to make the playoffs. But that means they must win their final four games starting with Saturday’s contest at Albany.
Blair and Whitaker believe UMaine can win out, and they are embracing the challenge of leading the way.
They got off to a good start in Saturday’s 34-25 win over William & Mary. Blair caught four passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns, and Whitaker was involved in 11 tackles, including four for loss, and a forced fumble that he also recovered.
“[It’s] going out there and competing and playing the game that you love with the brothers you have grown up with [at UMaine] … having fun,” Blair said.
“I think we’ll thrive in this situation. We’ve already won one [must-win game], and we have to keep moving forward,” he said.
Whitaker said the Black Bears have adopted a championship-game mentality that doesn’t allow for complacency.
“As underdogs [to make the playoffs] you always want to prove people wrong,” Whitaker said.
Head coach Nick Charlton said Whitaker and Blair will play a huge role in UMaine’s stretch run and must continue to perform at a high level.
“Those two guys, their momentum is building right now. They have been making plays,” Charlton said.
Nothing speaks more loudly to their teammates than executing on the field.
“People are going to follow along with you, and if they see you’re playing well, they’re going to feed off our energy,” Whitaker said.
Blair said the loss of Stevens and Ferguson has meant they have to be more vocal on the field, but he noted that the other captains are still leaders off the field with their presence at practice and in meetings.
That said, Whitaker and Blair said they don’t feel any extra pressure.
“We’re just being ourselves. That’s what got us to where we are now. That’s what made us captains,” Whitaker said.
“You have to go into each game with the utmost confidence and be ready to execute.”
Whitaker, a two-time All-CAA selection and a preseason All-American and All-CAA pick, is tied for fourth on the team in tackles (38) and leads UMaine in tackles for loss (9.5) and sacks (3.5).
Blair has already set career highs in receptions (48), receiving yards (674) and touchdown catches (7). He is tied for third in the conference in catches and catches per game (6), and is sixth in receiving yards per game (84.2).