UMaine football head coach Jordan Stevens at the first football practice of the season. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

As the first-year head football coach of University of Maine’s football team last season, Jordan Stevens watched his defense surrender 54 plays of 20 or more yards, which was a major contributing factor to his team’s 2-9 campaign.

Opposing quarterbacks completed 64.4 percent of their passes and UMaine allowed 31.6 points and 412.5 yards per game.

The Black Bears had their first official practice on Thursday and Stevens said they can’t afford to give up big plays if they are going to make significant progress. To make that a reality, the team is focusing on being more efficient and keeping things simple while improving on the basics.

“You can’t win if you give up big plays,” said Stevens, a former All-Colonial Athletic Association third team defensive end at UMaine. “That’s something we can’t have. We have to cut that down. It comes back to coaching and tackling and getting ourselves better.”

At left: UMaine quarterback Derek Robertson prepares to throw a pass during the first football practice of the season; at right: UMaine defensive coordinator Jeff Comissiong pictured at the Thursday practice. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Stevens said the team has to be “more efficient” in first and second down situations to keep the opponent from moving the chains or being in a third down and short yardage set-up.

It will be important to keep things simple, he said, so players can “just line up and play.”

“There are going to be a lot of schemes and formations,” Stevens added. “We need to be simple and get the guys to play better fundamentally and tackle better. We have to keep [the opponents] in front of us.”

Former UMaine linebacker Jeff Comissiong is the new defensive coordinator and has an impressive and extensive coaching resume including seven different schools: Bates, UMaine, Cornell, Hampton, Boston College, Harvard and Old Dominion.

Josh Lezin (#5) at UMaine’s first football practice of the season on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“We’re going back to basics,” said Comissiong, who is one of five new coaches on the staff. “Everyone has to understand what their responsibility is. They have to do their jobs and they have to work together as a unit. That’s how you play cohesive defense and stop big plays from happening.”

UMaine returns four starters from last year’s defensive unit.

Junior cornerback Kahzir “Buggs” Brown, a Phil Steele All-CAA preseason second team pick, said a lot of the long-yardage plays against the Black Bears came on busted plays, like when a quarterback scrambles and is able to find an open receiver down the field.

“We have to focus on our eyes, where we’re supposed to be and who we’re supposed to be guarding,” said Brown, who is recovering from a November knee surgery but practiced with the team in a limited role on Thursday. “Our technique wasn’t as sharp as it was supposed to be last year.”

Brown is the team’s leading returning tackler with 59 in 10 games and he led the team in pass breakups with nine. He was tied in interceptions with two.

He said the defense needs to put more pressure on the quarterback and wide receivers and work on one thing at a time.

Clockwise, from left: UMaine’s Blake Thomas #85 is tackled after receiving a pass at Thursday’s practice; Kahzir “Buggs” Brown, who had surgery for a knee injury in November, practices on Thursday; UMaine’s first football practice of the season on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“Once we master something, we move on to the next thing. You don’t want to be a jack of all trades and master of none. We want to master all of our trades,” Brown said.

One of the most experienced Black Bears is graduate student defensive tackle-nose guard Josh Lezin.

He has played 40 games in a Black Bear uniform.

“We have to be better in the interior,” Lezin said. “We have to do a better job stopping the run all across the board. We worked on that a lot in the spring and the offseason and, going into the season, we’re definitely going to be ready for that.”

UMaine was picked 13th in the 15-team league’s coaches preseason poll.

UMaine allowed 166 rushing yards per game, which was 68th among 123 Football Championship Subdivision teams.

Comissiong was the linebackers coach at Cornell last season and the Big Red limited opponents to 126.2 rushing yards per game, which was 27th best in the country.

If the Black Bears can stop the run, they can force opponents into predictable passing situations that will be easier to defend.

UMaine’s first football practice of the season on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Lezin, who had 21 tackles in nine games last fall, said if he does his job, it will help the team “make plays and win games.”

He will play an important role, as will Brown, according to Stevens.

“Josh is such a powerful, strong defensive lineman,” Stevens said. “We need him to maximize every day. We need him to be a force inside for us. He doesn’t have to do anything spectacular, he just needs to be consistent for us.”

Stevens said Brown is doing great bouncing back from knee surgery.

“He is in such great shape and he works really hard in the weight room and classroom. He’s ahead of schedule,” said Stevens, who hopes to have Brown in the lineup by the Coastal Athletic Association opener against Rhode Island on Sept. 16.

UMaine will open the season against Football Bowl Subdivision team Florida International University in Miami on Sept. 2 before taking on FCS powerhouse North Dakota State in the Fargodome on Sept. 9.

At left: UMaine quarterback Derek Robertson at the first football practice of the season; at right: Kahzir “Buggs” Brown (center), who had surgery for a knee injury in November, at UMaine’s first football practice of the season on Thursday. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Lezin and Brown anticipate Comissiong making a big difference this season.

“He’s a great coach,” Lezin said. “He will lead the defense the right way. He preaches a lot of good things. We are going to be a tough, physical defense because of him.”

“He reminds me a lot of my dad,” said Brown, referring to his father Siher Brown. “He will push us to be better on and off the field. We want to keep getting better every day.”