ORONO — As preseason training camp neared its conclusion, sophomore tailback Nigel Jones wondered what kind of playing time might come his way this fall.
Ahead of him on the University of Maine depth chart were three tailbacks, and Jones was concerned that a thigh bruise might further limit his opportunities in practice.
Fast forward one month and Jones seemed to be the only guy standing after injuries felled all three runners ahead of him. Senior Terrel Walker (knee) and redshirt freshman Zedric Joseph (leg) were lost for the the season. Senior Rickey Stevens (ribs) and was sure to miss two games, perhaps more.
“When everybody started going down, it was kind of like a lot more weight fell on my shoulders,” said Jones, a sophomore from Pleasantville, N.J. “I felt like I really had to step up.”
Step up? In his two starts, both against Football Championship Subdivision opponents ranked among the nation’s top 25, Jones scored six touchdowns and ran for 222 yards as the Black Bears knocked off No. 22 Richmond 28-21 in Virginia and No. 24 Delaware 62-28 in Orono.
Those victories helped propel Maine (5-1) from a team picked to finish eighth in the 11-team Colonial Athletic Association and ignored in national polls to its current standing as 14th in one poll (The Sports Network) and 17th (coaches) in another.
“We really had to lean on Nigel at the end of the Northwestern game and the whole Richmond game,” said Coach Jack Cosgrove. “I would say we’ve negotiated some possible trouble. It’s one of the few times where we needed the depth and we’ve had some depth.”
After a bye week that coincided with the university’s fall break weekend, the Black Bears embark on the second half of their 12-game regular schedule Saturday against William & Mary (4-2) at Alfond Stadium.
Stevens returned to practice this week and is expected to join Jones at tailback. The blowout of Delaware also allowed redshirt freshman Sacoy Maloy and sophomore Isaiah Jones to get valuable experience in that role.
“It’s a relief,” Nigel Jones said. “I love having those guys with me. I look up to Rick. When I first came here, he was the guy who showed me how to do everything – watch film, helped me learn the plays. It’s great having him back.”
Because the bye week neatly split the regular season, now seems an appropriate time to hand out midterm grades for the Black Bears, who already have matched last year’s win total.
LINE: LT Tyler Patterson, C Bruce Johnson and RG Dan Carriker joined veterans LG Jeff Gakos and RT Joe Hook to form a more cohesive quintet than expected. Maine is sixth in the CAA in rushing yards and has allowed only six sacks. Grade: B-plus.
RUNNING BACK: Nigel Jones has been the one constant, but Rickey Stevens and Zedric Joseph have contributed major minutes. Ball security has been decent. Grade: A-minus.
QUARTERBACK: Marcus Wasilewski has shown an impressive ability to sweep away mistakes and bounce back from such mistakes as end-zone interceptions (three) and pick sixes (two). A coach on the field with poise, knowledge and coolness under fire. Grade: A-minus.
RECEIVER: WRs Derrick Johnson and Damarr Aultman, TE Justin Perillo and slot John Ebeling all have at least 20 receptions. Art Williams and Jordan Dunn add depth and speed. Downfield blocking could be more consistent. Grade: B.
LINE: Matt Wilson, Darius Greene, Pat Ricard, Michael Cole, Trevor Bates, Erwin Roach and Jonathan Louis have filled one of the biggest question marks coming into the season. Maine is sixth in the CAA in rushing defense and third in sacks (16). Grade: A-minus.
LINEBACKER: Redshirt freshmen Cabrinni Goncalves and Christophe Mulumba (recently named to the Jerry Rice Award watch list for the outstanding FCS freshman) joined with veteran Troy Eastman to form an impressive trio. Arron Achey has been excellent in a supporting role. Grade: A.
SECONDARY: Corners Axel Ofori and Kendall James have been stellar. Safeties Jamal Clay and Khari Al-Mateen have been ably backed by Mike Mangiarelli and Lamar Fitzgerald, whose endzone interception secured the Richmond victory. Maine leads the CAA in defensive pass efficiency. Grade: A.
PUNTING: Maine is last in net average (32.1 yards) but four pooch punts by Wasilewski skews that number. Even so, Jeffrey Ondish has lots of room for improvement. Grade: C.
PLACE-KICKING: Sean Decloux is 4-for-7 on field goal attemps and missed twice inside 40 yards. His long is 41. He is 25-of-26 on PATs. His kickoffs often show power, but need more consistency. Grade: C-plus.
PUNT AND KICKOFF COVERAGE: Maine ranks third in kickoff coverage and has done well in punt coverage. Grade: A-minus.
PUNT AND KICKOFF RETURN: Ranked fourth in kickoff return (22.2 average) but ninth in punt return (3.8). Grade: B-plus.
Maine is 4-0 against fellow FCS opponents and 1-1 against the bigger bowl-eligible programs. Even a split of the final six games is likely to result in an NCAA tourney bid. Grade: A.
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: