ORONO — As the last line of defense, safeties are exposed on a football field. Miss a tackle, get beat deep on a pass pattern and the mistake is not only there for all to see, but usually results in a touchdown for the opposing team.
The job requires strength, speed and intelligence.
“You’ve got to be able to support the run like a linebacker and defend the pass like a corner(back),” said Paul Ferraro, defensive coordinator for the University of Maine. “That’s why that position is hard.”
Oh, and the best safeties have one other attribute.
“Those guys have to have short memories,” Ferraro said. “If something bad does happen, forget it. Let’s go line up again and go make an interception to win the game.”
Maine’s safeties – there are four in its regular rotation – will be tested Saturday by perhaps the Colonial Athletic Association’s most dynamic athlete, Villanova quarterback John Robertson.
The Black Bears (6-1 overall, 4-0 CAA) travel to Philadelphia to play Villanova (4-3, 3-1) on Saturday. Among Football Championship Subdivision teams, Maine is ranked 11th in one poll and 14th in another. Villanova, only four years removed from its national championship season, is 17th and 18th.
The Wildcats saw their four-game winning streak end on a last-minute touchdown and 2-point conversion last weekend in New Hampshire. Robertson ran for 256 yards and three touchdowns, and completed 15 of 17 passes for 122 yards.
“This guy has got some wiggle to him,” said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove. “He gets out of jams in the pocket and he makes some great moves downfield when he gets in the open that are more instinctive of a running back than a quarterback.”
Cosgrove saw plenty of Robertson last fall in Orono. Robertson led Villanova to a 35-14 win in Maine’s conference opener.
“They embarrassed us last year,” Cosgrove said. “They took it to us. They did what they wanted on offense, defense and special teams.”
The Black Bears are a different team now. Predicted in the preseason to finish eighth of 11 teams in the conference, Maine instead sits alone in first with the only perfect CAA record.
A major factor in that turnaround is a bend-but-don’t-break defense directed by Ferraro, a New Jersey native who got his first full-time coaching job at Villanova in 1984. Ferraro went on to a career in the NFL before returning to college last fall.
“They’re going to get their rushing yards,” Ferraro said of the Wildcats. “That’s what they do. You want the runs to stay under 10 yards. That doesn’t mean I want them to get nine yards every snap, but if you keep them away from the long runs, it tends to take care of itself from there.”
The task of keeping Robertson and his teammates from turning decent gains into big chunks lies with the safeties. Mike Mangiarelli and Khari Al-Mateen alternate at strong safety, and Jamal Clay and Lamar Fitzgerald at free safety.
Al-Mateen and Clay opened as starters but each got hurt in the Richmond game – a 28-21 victory when Fitzgerald made an interception in the end zone in the final minute. Mangiarelli also made an impact that game. As a result, Ferraro now uses all four almost interchangeably.
“Obviously it was a little bit of a discomfort at first,” said Al-Mateen. “But what’s happening is working. When you’re got four fresh safeties coming in and they aren’t tired and we’re on third down and we have fresh legs and fresh minds that can think and make checks, it gives teams more to worry about.”
Al-Mateen is from Maryland. Mangiarelli grew up in Ohio. His path to Orono was paved by former Black Bears assistant coach Steve Boyle, who is married to Mangiarelli’s sister.
“The coaches have a lot of trust in the four safeties right now, which is pretty nice,” said Mangiarelli. “It actually saves our bodies a little bit, too. It’s not like we’re not going in for 80 reps a game. We’re going in for 40 so you’re able to play the whole season.”
A season, it seems safe to say, that is becoming more memorable by the week.
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or