The University of Maine’s football team was picked to finish eighth in the 13-team Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll that was released on Thursday.
First-year head coach Jordan Stevens wasn’t bothered by the prediction.
“That’s not really our focus at this point,” said Stevens during a teleconference. “Our focus is on the start of camp next week and getting better fundamentally and from a physical standpoint this preseason.”
UMaine finished last season in a five-way tie for fourth place in the CAA and missed the playoffs with a 6-5 overall record, 4-4 in the CAA, and won five of their last six games. The Black Bear defense will return virtually intact with the exception of linebacker and leading tackler Ray Miller, and the offense will have to replace its top two receivers in Devin Young and Andre Miller.
“We’re just going to control the things that we can control and let everything else on the outside handle itself,” said senior quarterback Joe Fagnano. “We want to get better every day as individuals and as a team. We want to keep growing.”
Stevens — a former UMaine third team All-CAA defensive end from Temple and Farmington’s Mt. Blue High School — is looking for an improved defense over last fall when the Black Bears surrendered 386.91 yards and 27 points per game.
Only New Hampshire allowed more yards per game (386.91), and UNH (29.6) and Towson (28.6) were the only teams that gave up more points per game.
“We return a number of guys with experience up front and at the linebacker position,” Stevens said. “Our defense needs to be physical, number one. They need to play fast and play together. Those three things are what we echoed to the players from the start of spring practice and that will be our message throughout the season.”
Missing this season are Ray Miller, an All-CAA second teamer in the fall after he made 103 tackles, and safety and second leading tackler Fofie Bazzie (64).
Linebackers Adrian Otero (63) and Xavier Nurse (60) will anchor the defense.
Fagnano played in only four games a year ago due to a high ankle sprain but returned for the final two games and completed 37 of 61 passes for 458 yards and four touchdowns in wins over Football Bowl Subdivision team UMass and archrival UNH.
“I’m 100 percent now. I’m ready to get going. I’m excited with the team around me and the new coaching staff,” Fagnano said.
The Black Bears will have to replace their top two receivers in All-CAA third teamer Young (54 catches, 585 yards) and second team pick Andre Miller (39-for-384, 17.54 yards per catch average).
“Every year, you are going to lose talent. That’s nothing new,” Fagnano said. “But I’ve always had a good relationship with our young receivers and now they get a chance to showcase [their abilities] on the field.”
Stevens said “we have a lot of guys coming back up front on offense. Joe [Fagnano] is back, we have running backs with a ton of experience and we have [tight end] Shawn Bowman. We have to improve our execution and let our identity show through.”
Center Mike Gerace, an All-CAA second team pick last fall, was chosen to the league’s All-CAA preseason team. He has started 34 consecutive games.
Junior running back Freddie Brock and senior Bowman were honorable mention selections.
Brock rushed for a team-high 720 yards on 132 carries for a 5.5 yards per carry average. He also caught 18 passes for 137 yards. Elijah Barnwell also returns at running back after gaining 514 yards on 117 carries including 195 yards on 39 carries in his last two games.
Bowman, an All-CAA third teamer in the fall, caught 24 passes for 282 yards.
Stevens — one of five first-year head coaches in the league, which is celebrating its 75th year of existence — has a conference schedule that includes games against three of the top four in the preseason poll and four against teams picked below his Black Bears.
Villanova was chosen as the favorite followed by Delaware, Rhode Island and Richmond.
Delaware is the only one of the four the Black Bears won’t play.
They will also face No. 7 Stony Brook, No. 9 New Hampshire, No. 10 Monmouth, No. 12 Albany and No. 13 Hampton.
Monmouth and Hampton are first-year teams in the conference.
UMaine will not play No. 5 William and Mary, No. 6 Elon, and No. 11 Towson.