ORONO – Bruce Johnson approached the University of Maine locker room before football practice Thursday carrying a backpack and a plastic cup filled with pineapple chunks.
A redshirt freshman, Johnson knows all about the value of being ready for the unexpected, whether it be a snack to hold him until dinner or an unexpected injury that thrusts him into the spotlight.
Two weeks ago, an injury to veteran center Garret Williamson gave Johnson his first significant collegiate playing time. Williamson returned for Saturday’s 26-3 victory at Delaware, and Johnson shifted over to guard to fill in for the injured Chris Howley, a first team all-Colonial Athletic Conference lineman last fall.
“Going into (training) camp, I knew I wasn’t going to start,” said Johnson, who attended the same high school in suburban Rochester, N.Y., as junior tailback Rickey Stevens. “But you never know what’s going to happen during a game.
“So you’ve got to prepare like you’re going to be the starter for that week, regardless,” said the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Johnson. “Basically, I just practice as hard as I can. Take advantage of every (repetition) you get.”
As the Maine coaching staff continually reminds the non-starters, Johnson said, “Don’t count your reps. Make your reps count.”
Against Delaware, with Johnson at guard between Williamson and veteran right tackle Joe Hook, the Black Bears piled up 191 yards rushing in 35 attempts and yielded only one sack of quarterback Marcus Wasilewski. The previous Saturday in a 35-14 loss to Villanova, Wasilewski was sacked seven times and Maine netted only 11 yards rushing.
“Everybody has a role and better be ready when the time comes,” said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove. “It’s a good feeling to see guys when they respond the right way. And the right way is maybe just getting lined up (properly).”
Johnson had more to worry about against Villanova, an aggressive team that blitzes nearly every play. The center is responsible for setting the pass protection plan, so he must look over the defense and make an appropriate call to his fellow linemen.
“He’s the quarterback of the O-line,” said Cosgrove, who thought the return of Williamson against Delaware allowed Johnson to relax a little bit and settle in. “Garret calmed him down. There was less on his plate at the guard spot than there was two weeks ago at the center spot.”
Even though the positions are similar, guards and centers have different responsibilities. And Johnson, who didn’t play in any games last year, was a left tackle in high school.
Last year, injuries decimated Maine’s receiving corps, and Damarr Aultman and Arthur Williams made the most of their opportunities.
So far this year, it is Johnson on the offensive line and Mike Kozlakowski at defensive end (he had two of Maine’s seven sacks against Delaware) who are stepping up after spending the previous season on the sidelines.
“You have to give them opportunities in practice during the week to develop confidence, so they can be successful on Saturday,” said Cosgrove, who carefully scripts practices so back-up personnel are exposed to the game plan and understand their roles. “What you’re hoping happens is that the younger player, you practice him enough so they get out there and they’re not stage struck, and they do things.”
Kozlakowski is certain to see more playing time now that starter Michael Cole, who had five sacks Saturday, had season-ended knee surgery Wednesday. Johnson isn’t sure how much action he’ll see Saturday against Towson, but he’s preparing to play a full game.
“I don’t necessarily know,” he said, “but I have to make sure I’m ready.”
NOTES: Cole is likely to be on crutches for at least six weeks following Wednesday’s surgery to repair a torn tendon on the inside of his left knee, where one of the four quadriceps muscles from the thigh attach above the kneecap.
The injury occurred late in the game and did not involve a collision. Cole planted his left foot and tried to cut to chase the quarterback. As he cut, the tendon ruptured.
Recovery time for such an injury is usually nine months, said Ryan Taylor, Maine’s head athletic trainer, who predicted Cole would be ready to take part fully in preseason training camp next August.
“He’s such a hard worker,” Taylor said, “I don’t foresee him not being ready.”
After being out with an injury for two weeks, tailback David Hood began practicing again last Wednesday and played on Saturday, running for 103 yards on 14 carries to complement the power running of Stevens (67 yards on 13 carries).
“We have a power back and a speed back,” said Johnson. “It brings more of a dynamic to the team.”
After four-year starting kicker Brian Harvey missed four of eight field-goal attempts through four games and dealt with a leg injury, Cosgrove opted to go with freshman Sean Decloux for both place-kicking and kickoffs.
Decloux’s first field-goal attempt was a line drive blocked by a defender who raised his arms but did not jump. The first kickoff was a line drive through the end zone, “which was good, but not what we called for,” Cosgrove said.
“Once he got the nervousness out of him with those first two kicks, I liked what we saw.”
Decloux made all three PAT kicks and added a 34-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. Jeffrey Ondish, who had been kicking off, concentrated instead on punting.
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: