Joe Fagnano of the University of Maine looks for running room against Albany's Hayden Specht (27) during their March 13, 2021, Colonial Athletic Association game in Orono. Credit: Ronnie Gillis / UMaine Athletics

The University of Maine’s football team should be improved over this past spring even if the Colonial Athletic Association’s coaches don’t agree, as they picked the Black Bears to finish ninth in the 12-team conference.

It’s like old times for the Black Bears, who were virtually always selected in the bottom third of the conference until they reached the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals for the first time in program history in 2018 and were rewarded with a third place projection at the outset of the 2019 campaign.

Since that 2018 CAA championship season, the Black Bears have been a .500 team both overall (8-8) and in conference play (6-6).

The problem is the schedule-makers certainly didn’t do the Black Bears any favors this season.

They open with the nation’s fifth-ranked team in Delaware on Thursday night in Orono, and then they travel to take on No. 2 James Madison nine days later.

An 0-2 start would put a major crimp in their quest for a FCS playoff berth.

But a winning season is still a realistic goal for UMaine, even with two Football Bowl Subdivision teams (Northern Illinois, University of Massachusetts) also on its schedule.

The abbreviated four-game spring schedule was extremely beneficial, giving the Black Bears’ offensive and defensive lines and their running backs valuable experience that should result in a significant upgrade this fall.

“That was critical,” said UMaine head coach Nick Charlton who added that he and his coaching staff needed the team to get stronger physically and they have done that thanks to director of sports performance Jon Lynch and his volunteer assistant, Matt Mulligan.

The defensive line registered just two sacks in four games and allowed 5.3 yards per rush. Neither statistic is conducive to winning.

Those stats should be significantly better as the defensive line does a better job pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run.

Senior end Jamehl Wiley had 27 tackles in four spring games and now has 82 in 29 career games. He is the leader up front. The other end, sophomore Khairi Manns, had 23 tackles in his first four UMaine games. Junior middle guard Josh Lezin (15 tackles) and junior tackle Justin Sambu (5 tackles) continued to progress.

Graduate students Xavier Mitchell and Austin Chambers, junior Raffaele Salamone and sophomore John Costanza will also see playing time up front.

Replacing All-American linebacker and emotional leader Deshawn Stevens, who transferred to West Virginia, will be a challenge, but Campbell University transfer Ray Miller, who had 179 tackles in 34 career games, has been a welcome addition and will be a nice complement to senior Adrian Otero (121 tackles in 29 career games). Sophomore Xavier Nurse played in his first four games this spring, while redshirt freshmen Vince Thomas and Darius McKenzie and junior Brian Lee Jr. are also in the linebacking picture.

The secondary was hoping to have Katley Joseph back in the fold after he missed the spring with a knee injury, but he injured his other knee and is out indefinitely. He had 69 tackles and 19 pass breakups over his last 24 games.

Rich Carr, a senior, is a potential All-CAA cornerback (92 tackles, 4 interceptions in 29 games) and he will be joined in the secondary by sophomore strong safety Austin Ambush, who had 12 tackles in the spring, redshirt senior Fofie Bazzie and redshirt freshman Kolubah Pewee Jr.

Senior Benito Speight has some experience and the other back-ups are freshmen Abdul Stewart, Shakur Smalls and Kahzir Brown.

The offense will again revolve around second team All-CAA quarterback Joie Fagnano, who has completed 60.6 percent of his career passes (188-of-310) for 2,630 yards and 25 touchdowns with just four interceptions.

Charlton expects a lot from Fagnano, who completed over 80 percent of his passes in the team’s last scrimmage.

It will be important for Fagnano to also use his legs to move the offense, as UMaine is 5-2 when he carries the ball at least 10 times and 1-2 when he doesn’t. One of the games he lost when he carried the ball 10 or more times was his first start, a 59-44 loss to Football Bowl Subdivision team Liberty University (Virginia).

The wide receiving corps is the deepest position on the team. All-CAA first teamer Andre Miller from Old Town caught 21 passes for 348 yards and six TDs this spring and now has 65 career catches for 1,164 yards and 13 TDs.

Devin Young — who opted out of the spring season — returns, and has 74 career catches for 814 yards and five TDs. Michael Monios had eight catches and Jacob Hennie and Xavier Scott had seven apiece this spring. Scott had 33 receptions for 228 yards and rushed for 210 yards on 34 carries at UConn in 2018 and had an exceptional training camp.

Scott will be used in a variety of roles including the running game as well as the passing game.

Sophomores Montigo Moss and Jamie Lamson are other receiving options.

The Black Bears also have a budding star at tight end in 6-foot-5 Shawn Bowman, who hauled in nine passes this spring for 82 yards and now has 31 career catches for 301 yards.

Freddie Brock was the bright spot in the backfield with his 5.7 yards per carry average as a true freshman. Rutgers transfer Elijah Barnwell, a redshirt junior, and sophomore Tavion Banks should also be able to churn out some yards with another season under their belts and an improved offensive line.

The line has received a big lift from All-Patriot League tackle P.J. Barr, a transfer from Bucknell University with 37 games on his resume. Center Michael Gerace, a Phil Steele preseason All-CAA third team pick, has played in 28 games and guard Matthias Staalsoe has started 16 straight contests.

Tackle Gunnar Docos from Harrison has 19 starts and guard Tyrie Francois played in all four spring games.

UMaine has to significantly improve its 3.6 yards per rush average from the spring. Opponents have to respect UMaine’s passing game, which should help open up the running game.

Kevin Jones and Max Lovblad are tackles and Zach Reed can play either guard spot. Bucksport’s David Gross is the back-up center.

On special teams, Stetson (Florida) transfer Jonny Messina connected on two of his three field goal attempts and all 12 of his point-afters. UMaine will need more consistency from punter David Gelb and will have to find someone who can drive its kickoffs deeper to avoid giving opponents good field position.

Graduate student Bryce Colee is an All-CAA long snapper and special teams player.