It has been 16 months since the University of Maine football team last played a game.
With the 2020 fall season pushed back because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Bears’ last outing was a 28-10 loss to Colonial Athletic Association rival New Hampshire on Nov. 23, 2019 to cap a 6-6 season, 4-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Ten players from that 6-5 team who started that game, including six on offense, are expected to play in Saturday’s noon spring season opener at the University of Delaware in Newark.
CAA teams await a six-game schedule for the chance to earn one of 16 spots in the pared-down, 16-team Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The offensive line, which averages 311 pounds from tackle to tackle, has three returning starters in left tackle Tyler Royal, left guard Matthias Staalsoe and center Michael Gerace. Starting right tackle Gunnar Docos from Oxford Hills High in South Paris has also been a starter in previous seasons. Tyrie Francois is the right guard and is a first-year starter as a redshirt freshman.
All-America tackle Liam Dobson transferred to Texas State of the more competitive Football Bowl Subdivision.
“I feel really good about our offensive line,” second-year UMaine head coach Nick Charlton said. “We have a lot of new running backs who have a lot of talent and who have made a lot of progress. We expect big things from [wide receiver] Andre Miller now that he is healthy.”
Miller, a co-captain from Old Town, is the Black Bears’ top returning receiver. He caught 28 passes for 520 yards and four touchdowns in 2019, while 6-foot-5 tight end Shawn Bowman (22 catches, 219 yards, 1 TD) also is back.
Jacob Hennie (7-75) and Michael Monios will get more prominent minutes at wide receiver and there are several promising youngsters in the mix, including freshman Montigo Moss, son of Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss. Devin Young has opted out for the spring.
Quarterback Joe Fagnano is back after an exceptional freshman season. Taking over for the injured Chris Ferguson, Fagnano completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 1,835 yards and 17 TDs. He was intercepted only three times. He also ran for 192 yards.
The running backs who have impressed Charlton include Rutgers University transfer Elijah Barnwell, freshmen Tavion Banks and Freddie Brock, and redshirt freshman Curtis Murray, who saw some limited action in 2019.
Miller also likes what he has seen from them.
“They’re going to bring a whole different dynamic to the offense,” Miller said. “(Opposing defenses) won’t be able to drop into certain coverages because they will have to respect our running game.”
It will be important for the Black Bears to establish their running game behind a veteran offensive line. That will take some of the pressure off the passing game and enable Fagnano to establish a chemistry with his relatively inexperienced receivers.
UMaine should be able to move the ball effectively to keep the defense from spending too much time on the field.
The return of linebacker Deshawn Stevens will give the defense a huge lift as the co-captain is also the emotional leader of the team. The preseason All-American tore his Achilles tendon in the opening game of the 2019 season and his presence was noticeably missed.
Stevens’ 120 tackles and 8.6 tackles per game ranked third in the CAA during UMaine’s 2018 drive to the FCS national semifinals.
“Deshawn Stevens is back after missing last season, Adrian Otero is going to be a great player in this league and Ori Jean-Charles and Myles Taylor look good as well. That’s the strength of our defense,” Charlton said.
The other returning defensive starters are Otero, the team’s No. 2 tackler (83) in 2019 behind the departed Taji Lowe, cornerback Richard Carr (54 tackles), end Jamehl Wiley (23 tackles, 4 sacks) and Jean-Charles (27 tackles).
Taylor was involved in 31 tackles in 10 games.
Nose tackle Austin Chambers, a transfer from FBS Brigham Young, has been lauded for his play as has defensive tackle Josh Lezin (17 tackles in 2019).
Redshirt freshman tackle Khairi Manns is expected to start up front with Chambers, Lezin and Wiley.
Cornerback Carr is joined in the revamped secondary by University of Connecticut transfer Jordan Swann, a corner who played in nine games in 2019, along with the safeties, University of Maryland transfer Fofie Bazzie and Robby Riobe, who played in four games as a freshman.
Shaquille St. Lot, who led UMaine in pass breakups, will miss the season with a knee injury. Veterans Katley Joseph and Erick Robertson have opted out.
“There’s a lot of young talent back there. They bring a lot of energy,” Charlton said. “I like those guys a lot. We’re definitely excited about them but they’ve got to play a game. Fofie Bazzie played at the University of Maryland, Richard Carr has played a lot of football here, we expect big things from Robbie Riobe and Jordan Swann has played a good amount here.”
Opponents likely will try to exploit UMaine’s inexperienced secondary so it will be important for the front seven to establish a strong pass rush.
Jonny Messina, who was 15-for-19 in field goals at Stetson University in 2019, is the new place-kicker after Kenny Doak transferred to Southeast Missouri. Returnee David Gelb will handle the punting.
This team will contend for an FCS playoff spot thanks to the return of Stevens, a more seasoned Fagnano and a stout offensive line.
However, you never know how COVID-19 might impact the team.
Players have to recognize this is a sprint, not a marathon, with just six league games. So a good start is a must.