ORONO — The blue-and-white practice jerseys were crisp and freshly laundered. The navy helmets shined, unscuffed. And for the University of Maine football team, everything was upbeat on the opening day of practice Monday at Alfond Stadium.

It was a noncontact day, as the coaching staff evaluated freshmen. The returning players – everyone from quarterbacks Chris Treister and Warren Smith to Jerron McMillian, an all-Colonial Athletic Association preseason selection at defensive back – worked on refining their fundamental skills.

“It’s a lot of learning, especially for the younger guys,” said Raibonne Charles, a senior defensive lineman. “And no words can describe being out here on this first day. But as far as setting the tone, for us older guys, setting the example is a really important thing.”

The first day of practice, Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove said, is never a difficult one to oversee.

“They set the tone themselves,” said Cosgrove, who is in his 19th season as head coach. “There’s a level of enthusiasm and excitement that reigns, and it’s pretty obvious to most just because they’ve been waiting since the end of the season for this to get going.”

But the Black Bears know that after a 4-7 season (3-5 in the CAA), they confront a handful of questions entering the 2011 season: Who will be the quarterback? How will a unit that ranked sixth in the CAA in total defense (354.2 yards a game), eighth in scoring defense (24.5 points a game) and ninth in pass defense (227.1 yards a game) improve? And how will Maine carve its identity?

“We need to identify ourselves as a team,” said Treister, a former Portland High standout. “Who are we? We’re the 2011 Black Bears and we’re a lot different than we’ve been in the past. We have more senior leadership. We have a lot of talent coming back and we need to improve on last season, in which we did not finish the way we needed to.

“This is a very competitive league and everybody has talent. It’s what you do with it and how you come together, and the cohesiveness of each unit. That’s the biggest thing for us. To come together.”

Cosgrove pointed to one factor he believes will be key for the Black Bears – developing depth.

“If we have depth, we have a chance to withstand some of the challenges of the game that can happen,” Cosgrove said. “That’s always a question at this level, anyway.

“I don’t feel like right now we know ourselves as well as we need to. We’re excited about some of the first-year players from last year who are now redshirt freshmen, who had pretty good springs and offseasons for us, but they’ve got to do it out here now in the preseason. We’re waiting on them, (and) we’ve got some new young players here and we need to evaluate them.

“But saying who we are and what we are is still kind of a distant thought. “

The key, Cosgrove said, for this year’s team as the luster wears off and reality sets in: Stay focused on the big picture.

“All too often up here, in the past, we’ve gotten too much to thinking about Game 1, the playoffs, things that are good things to strive for,” Charles said.

“But that’s not how you become successful, by thinking about the future. The thing we’re trying to instill in the young guys is taking it day by day and working as hard as you possibly can. Get the most out of every day.”

 

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be reached at 791-6415 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: rlenzi