Who will lead the University of Maine football team in 2010?

Will it be the offense, with its yet-to-be-named quarterback and bruising fullback Jared Turcotte, who will make his anticipated return?

Will it be the defense, which has quietly gone about its work during preseason?

Maine will open the season Thursday night at Alfond Stadium against Albany, and those questions could quickly be answered. Game time is 6 p.m.

The Black Bears went 5-6 last year and 4-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association, failing to make the playoffs after a resurgent 2008.

And their schedule in 2010 is even tougher.

The newly aligned CAA went from two divisions of six teams to a 10-team league following the loss of two programs.

That marks this as a critical year for Maine, which has four nationally ranked teams on its conference schedule and a Football Bowl Subdivision game at Syracuse.

The players, though, aren’t “We just can’t be looking ahead,” said quarterback Warren Smith who is battling with former Portland High standout Chris Treister for the starting QB job. “We started doing that last year and it backfired.

“It is one game at a time. We will prepare for each game like it’s our last game. And we believe we will see a big difference in the outcome.”

Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove said three weeks of preseason has convinced him of that.

“They’ve grounded themselves a little bit with a maturity that is a byproduct of last year’s experience,” said Cosgrove. “They struggled in the opener. They lost to Albany after a 16-0 lead at the half. These are things that can ground you in a hurry.

“I just have a feeling a more consistent approach will come from this group.”

THE OFFENSE

The Black Bears are emphasizing a return to the running game that got them into the playoffs in 2008.

The hope is to blend a strong ground game with the high-flying passing attack that led the CAA last year.

Regardless who wins the quarterback job, the offense could be hard to defend.

“My gut tells me we’re going to be really explosive. There’s going to be a lot of threats out there,” said receiver Tyrell Jones.

The key to the operation is a more experienced offensive lind. Maine returns four of five starting linemen and a bevy of young talent.

But make no mistake, the return of Turcotte is significant. There is no player on the team more effective in short-yardage situations.

“He brings another aspect that teams have to worry about. And it’s a big one,” said Smith. “He just has great balance. Great vision. He can run over anybody. With him, we can get those tough yards. He’s the difference between third-and-2 and moving the chains to get another set of downs to work with.”

Turcotte, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior from Lewiston, had two lower abdominal surgeries last year and never played a down. He compiled a team-leading 625 rushing yards in 2008.

“I’m excited. We have so much depth in the backfield at tailback (and) fullback,” said Turcotte. “No matter who is in, we have a lot confidence back there.”

During preseason Turcotte has looked strong, running through the defense at times and breaking tackles.

“I call him the tone setter,” said Jones. “He gets a big hit and runs somebody over, it gets everybody excited.”

Tailback Derek Session, one of 18 players to undergo surgery in the offseason, adds speed and finesse to the backfield.

“Turcotte’s got a special syrup in him when he plays and we’re anxious to see it this fall. And Derek Session is healthy,” said Cosgrove.

“The combination of he and Turcotte makes us a very difficult team to defend. It allows us to play bigger. To play faster.”

Maine’s receiving corps will be led by Jones, who had 41 receptions for 481 yards and five touchdowns last season. He’ll be joined by sophomore Maurice McDonald and seniors Desmond Randall and Jeremy Kelley. Derek Buttles is likely to line up at both tight end at slot receiver.

THE DEFENSE

Maine returns starters or experienced players at every position on defense.

The defense struggled in the early part of last year but had made strides by season’s end. Maine ranked ninth in the CAA, allowing 346.4 yards per game.

“You could see last season we’d be ahead and then it fell apart in the second half,” said cornerback Steven Barker. “We don’t want to blame it on youth, but that experience is there now.”

Mark Masterson will be a key presence at outside linebacker after missing last season with injuries. Kris Enslen moves to defensive end to replace Jordan Stevens and should have a strong impact. He had 25 tackles in just five games before getting injured.

And Maine’s secondary might be its most experienced unit in years. Trevor Coston had 52 tackles last year at free safety, and strong safety Jerron McMillian compiled 55 tackles, 3.5 for loss, to go along with five interceptions.

“Safeties in this league are special,” said Cosgrove. “I really feel good about that spot.”

Barker and Dom Cusano return at the corners. Cusano missed most of last year with injuries but leveled a seismic tackle in the end zone during Maine’s final intrasquad scrimmage last week.

THE CAA

The league lost two Northeast schools when Hofstra and Northeastern dropped football, citing economic problems and waning fan support. Rhode Island has implied it will consider leaving the CAA after this season.

That would leave Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts as the CAA’s only Northeast teams.

Cosgrove has said it will be his mission this year to make Maine’s intentions clear.

“We are an original member of this conference. Nobody is going to run us out,” said Cosgrove. “I take a lot of pride in that personally. We’re in this league for the long run. The league’s greatness has helped us become a better football program.”

The CAA is considered the strongest conference in FCS football – boasting four national champions in the last seven years, and the last two.

Maine’s conference schedule starts Sept. 25 at home against William and Mary. The other conference games are against New Hampshire, Delaware, Villanova, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Towson and James Madison.

“This is another opportunity to step up when there are some Doubting Thomases out there about our future,” said Cosgrove. “The only way to answer is by action. Here we go. Here’s our opportunity.”

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

[email protected]