The 17th annual Jeff Cole Memorial Spring Game was held Saturday, April 22, on Morse Field in Alfond Stadium at the University of Maine. The Black Bears game honors former UMaine assistant coach Jeff Cole, who died of cancer in 2004. Credit: Larry Mahoney | BDN

ORONO, Maine — Tavion Banks knows the opportunity has presented itself for him to become a primary running back in the University of Maine football team’s offense this fall.

The top four rushers on last year’s team have all departed so Banks, who was fifth with 86 rushing yards on 23 carries, has emerged as the front-runner to become the featured running back.

He helped his cause during the 17th annual Jeff Cole Memorial Spring Game on Saturday on Morse Field in Alfond Stadium.

The game honors former UMaine assistant coach Jeff Cole, who died of cancer in 2004. 

Banks carried the ball 10 times for 48 yards, including a nifty 17-yard scamper, and he scored a couple of touchdowns as UMaine’s offense battled the Black Bear defense in front of approximately 300 fans on a pleasant sunny day.

“It was a good day. There were some things I could have done better, but I was happy with today. The team played well, everyone played hard and that’s all that matters,” said Banks who has 63 career carries for 206 yards in three seasons, including the COVID-19-abbreviated four-game spring season in 2021.

He has also caught eight passes for 78 yards.

He will be a senior in the fall.

Tavion Banks is the front-runner to become the featured running back for the University of Maine Black Bears football team.  Credit: Larry Mahoney / BDN

“Tavion has really stepped it up this spring,” UMaine head coach Jordan Stevens said. “He had a great offseason. He got bigger, he got stronger. You see him breaking more tackles. 

“Compared to last season, his production is through the roof. And we need that. He has really embraced this role and I love where his head is at,” Stevens added.

“This is what I have been working for ever since I got here. They have given me an opportunity, and now it’s time for me to step up. I want to be a leader by example,” Banks said.

Quarterback Derek Robertson, who also looked sharp, expects big things from Banks in the fall.

“He has been unbelievable this spring,” said Robertson, who will also be a senior. “He works so hard. He does everything right. He is definitely going to be a great player for us.”

Banks knows he has assumed more of a leadership role, and he also has focused on “seeing the game and slowing it down for myself.”

He was referring to being able to read his blockers and find seams in the defense to run through.

“I improved on that this spring and it showed today,” said the 5-foot-10, 200-pound native of Bethelemen, Pennsylvania.

The game involved the various offensive units against their counterparts on defense. For example, the No. 1 offense, with Robertson taking snaps, would take on the No. 1 defense and so on.

The drives would start in varying spots on the field, including inside the 50-yard line, and the final drives of the day began at the three-yard line, where the offense would try to convert with its short yardage unit. 

On the last possession of the game, the defense stuffed the offense short of the goal line. 

Robertson, who backed up Joe Fagnano last fall after starting seven games in 2021 when Fagnano was sidelined by an ankle injury, completed 9-of-15 passes for 109 yards.

That included a clever 16-yard TD pass to All-Colonial Athletic Association third-team tight end Shawn Bowman.

Robertson faked a handoff, rolled right and then threw back across the grain to the left where a wide open Bowman hauled it in.

Robertson and Bowman also hooked up on a perfectly-executed 24-yard completion as Robertson dropped the ball over the shoulder of Bowman, who made a nice grab along the right sideline before going out-of-bounds.

To-be-senior quarterbacks Anthony Harris and Jack Kelley and redshirt freshman Ayden Pereira also showed promising glimpses and Harris displayed his quickness with impressive runs.

“Anthony certainly brings value to our team with his athleticism and that’s huge,” Stevens said.

Veteran wide receivers Montigo Moss, Jamie Lamson and Michael Monios had receptions as did tight end Rohan Jones, who will be a sophomore. Among other tight ends-wide receivers who had catches were senior Aaron Arteaga and graduate student tight end Cooper Heisey, a Rutgers transfer.

“We have plenty of skill at running back, tight end and [wide] receivers,” Robertson said. “They all do a great job. And the offensive line did an unbelievable job this spring.”

Stevens said redshirt-freshman offensive lineman Nicholas Cruji has had an outstanding spring and is in position to compete for a starting job.

 The defense also had some noteworthy moments including the game-ending stop.

“It was good to see the defense get a stop there. It was a good way to finish,” Stevens said. “The defense has come a long way. That’s been huge. That’s what we need as a team.”

UMaine’s defense was substandard last fall, allowing 31.6 points and 412.4 yards per game. The Black Bear defense had 54 plays in which it gave up at least 20 yards en route to its 2-9 season (2-6 in the CAA).

Stevens said senior linebacker Christian Thomas has “really stood out.”

He was a back-up last year but appeared in all 11 games last fall and was involved in 16 tackles.

Stevens expects his secondary to be much improved with the addition of Rutgers transfer Damon Matthews, the continued improvement of Kahzir Brown, Shakur Smalls, Jamaree Gibson and Aaron Gethers and a healthy Robby Riobe, who missed last spring and a big chunk of fall training camp with an injury.

Several players who are potential starters in the fall didn’t play Saturday due to minor injuries like Brown and Smalls, who were third and fourth on the team in tackles last fall with 59 and 48, respectively.

UMaine will open the season at Florida International University on Sept. 2. FIU plays in the Football Bowl Subdivision which is a notch above UMaine’s Football Championship Subdivision. 

Bowman, Robertson, offensive tackle Kevin Jones and linebacker Vince Thomas will captain the 2023 team.