ORONO – Rarely has Rickey Stevens Jr. had anything handed to him, which is probably why, as the University of Maine prepares for its home opener, he may be handed the football repeatedly Saturday night.

The Black Bears (1-1) will meet Albany (2-1) at 6 p.m. at Alfond Stadium in their final game as nonconference opponents. Next year Albany and Stony Brook will join Maine in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Stevens has emerged at tailback after gaining 168 yards on 17 carries in Saturday’s 51-7 victory over Bryant in Smithfield, R.I.

His first college carry came in the second quarter and resulted in a 7-yard gain. On the second, he broke through the line and gained 46 yards. Stevens wound up averaging 9.9 yards per carry.

Not bad for a guy who entered training camp third on the depth chart, who ambled into Orono 18 months ago after transferring from an NAIA school in suburban Cleveland.

“Coach (Jack Cosgrove) was gracious enough to allow me to try out as a walk-on,” Stevens said, “and from there I just wanted to work hard and earn a spot.”

Stevens grew up in Rochester, N.Y., the son of an engineer (Rickey Sr.) and an administrative assistant (Jackie) who taught their son the value of a strong work ethic.

“My parents instilled that in me from a young age,” he said. “They used to say, ‘If it’s worth having, it’s not going to come easy.’ “

So when Stevens first played organized football, as a diminutive seventh grader on a team that included older and bigger kids, he didn’t see much action until a punt returner got hurt. The coaches noticed Stevens usually finished first in conditioning sprints, so they gave him a chance in a scrimmage.

“I ended up taking that punt return for a touchdown,” Stevens remembered with a smile. “Going into high school, I wasn’t the biggest kid. The high school coach wasn’t sure I’d be able to play running back, but I got in the weight room and worked hard.”

His opportunity arose as a sophomore on the junior varsity. The varsity starter and backup got injured in the season’s first two games and Stevens was promoted. He ran for 125 yards in his first game and never left the varsity.

“It was a surprise to everybody because no one knew who I was,” he said. “From then on, I just kept working hard.”

Although he found success at Gates Chili High in Rochester — 35 career touchdowns and 3,934 yards rushing, and numerous honors, including a national scholar-athlete award — Stevens was ignored by Division I college coaches. High schools were full of shifty 5-foot-8, 165-pound running backs. Why should this one be special?

But a seed was planted when a former Maine offensive line coach, Frank Giufre, another product of western New York, visited Gates Chili and spoke to Stevens about the program in Maine.

“It sounded great to me,” Stevens said, “so I always had it in the back of my mind.”

Stevens enrolled at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio, and helped bring the program from a club sport to the intercollegiate level. He came to Maine in January 2011 and took part in spring practice.

“I don’t recall Rickey ever talking, for the whole spring,” Cosgrove said. “Just a hard-working kid who immersed himself in our program.”

He earned a spot on special teams last fall, paid his dues on the scout team and found the ideal player to emulate: Pushaun Brown. Stevens watched, listened and learned from the veteran tailback, who shared tips on technique or assignment or what to key on.

“I tried to soak it in like a sponge,” said Stevens, who described his study of Brown as mental reps. “I looked at the older guys to learn what to expect and what the coaches expect.”

Those expectations include more than running to daylight. They include blocking, protecting the quarterback, catching screens and short passes, and carrying out fakes.

“Pushaun certainly is a bigger guy,” Cosgrove said of Brown, who was invited to NFL training camp by the Jets this summer, but both take pride in being well-rounded.

“He’ll block for us, he’ll run the ball tough, he’ll catch the ball out of the backfield,” Cosgrove said of Stevens. “He’ll do his job every play. And what comes with that is trust.”

With the graduation of Pushaun Brown and Roosevelt Brown, Stevens moved up the depth chart, behind David Hood and Terrel Walker. He started getting physical reps, accelerating his learning curve. He stayed in Orono through the summer, hitting the weight room and bulking up to nearly 200 pounds.

When Walker sustained a knee injury in training camp requiring season-ending surgery, Stevens became the backup. After Hood fumbled against both Boston College and Bryant, Cosgrove turned to Stevens.

“You trust putting him in the game,” Cosgrove said. “He secures the ball.”

Now 21, Stevens has another year of eligibility. He also earned a partial scholarship. He’s a communications major who prides himself on preparation.

“I’m not going to sit here and say we recruited a gem because he came to us,” Cosgrove said. “But he can play here, and he certainly proved that Saturday.

“We’re counting on him for a lot of important stuff the rest of the year. He makes our team better.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH