ORONO — Michael Cole set the career sack record.
Christophe Mulumba won conference Rookie of the Week four times.
Cabrinni Goncalves and Cole share the team lead in tackles for loss.
But the player repeatedly voted captain by his teammates and coaches to represent the defense before every game of this storybook football season at the University of Maine?
That would be Troy Eastman, a fifth-year senior who quietly goes about his linebacker business while raising the level of play of those around him.
“I can’t say enough about him,” said defensive coordinator Paul Ferraro. “He’s not a yeller and a screamer. He typically leads by example. The statistics aren’t off the charts but I can tell you, that consistency in the middle of our defense has a lot to do with the success we’ve had.”
Maine’s defense isn’t the most dominant in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Black Bears rank fourth in scoring, seventh in rushing, first in passing and fourth in overall defense. They bend but no CAA team has been able to break them.
Predicted to finish eighth in the CAA, the Black Bears (9-1) instead have risen to sixth in the country in two national Football Championship Subdivision polls and, with a victory Saturday against Rhode Island, would claim their first conference title since joining the CAA in 2007 and first outright title of any kind since 1965, when they were alone atop the Yankee Conference and played in the Tangerine Bowl. The Gridiron Power Index ranks them fourth in the nation.
“If you told me (that) before the season started, I don’t know what I would have said,” said Eastman, stroking his full black beard. “Coming into the season we lost a lot of seniors who were good, who had been good players for a long time. So when they were gone, we didn’t know how good we were going to be. We had to rely on each other even more.”
One of those departed seniors was Donte Dennis, the middle linebacker and undisputed leader of last year’s defense. Dennis was a year ahead of Eastman at Rahway (N.J.) High and helped pave his way in Orono.
“Having Donte here just added to that family atmosphere,” Eastman said. “It made me more involved. Having an older brother figure coming from where I’m from, who learned everything I learned, made that transition so much easier.”
Originally recruited as a safety, Eastman bulked up and moved to outside linebacker. He earned playing time as a special teams standout and was voted a special teams captain as a sophomore. As a junior he was voted a defensive captain.
“There’s a distinct possibility,” said Coach Jack Cosgrove, “that he could be the first three-time captain in the history of the program.”
Maine selects its captains on a weekly basis by a team-wide ballot before each Thursday practice. Only first-year players don’t vote because they haven’t been in the system long enough. Cosgrove said he doesn’t believe in naming a captain at the start of a season and sticking with that choice throughout.
“We’ve had captains that have gotten in trouble and captains that have done the wrong things,” said Cosgrove, who believes the weekly ballot “holds you accountable to the responsibilities of being a captain.”
Eastman has been a captain for every game this season. Since late September, the special teams and offensive captains joining him have been junior linebacker Arron Archey and senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski.
Nowhere has Eastman’s influence been more important than in the development of two other starting linebackers. Both Mulumba and Goncalves are redshirt freshmen facing collegiate competition for the first time. For them, Eastman is the anti-Incognito, a benevolent role model who nurtures rather than nags.
“I constantly see Troy working with those two guys,” Cosgrove said. “He is their big brother in every way, shape and form. And I want our young players to look up to the seniors for advice in every part of their lives. It’s not just on the football field. It’s in academics and in decision-making in social settings.”
In his four seasons of eligibility, Eastman has played in every game except one, the 2010 finale when he was a redshirt freshman. His 92-yard interception return for a touchdown against Towson was one of the highlights of last fall’s 5-6 campaign.
His two interceptions this fall came at critical times. Bryant led 16-14 late in the first half of Maine’s home opener when Eastman picked off a pass at midfield and returned it 22 yards to set up the go-ahead score in a game the Black Bears won, 35-22. Earlier this month, also in Orono, Stony Brook trailed 13-7 late in the third quarter but had driven 71 yards before Eastman’s interception at the 5 put a temporary halt to the Seawolves, who eventually took a one-point lead before falling, 19-14.
“He’s made other significant plays that maybe don’t show up because it’s not a turnover or a sack,” Ferraro said, “but it was a play that helped us get off the field that maybe went unnoticed.”
Not by his teammates, nor by his coaches and certainly not by his proteges, Goncalves and Mulumba.
“They’re a bunch of fun,” Eastman said with a smile. “We’re around each other all the time. We eat together, watch film together, hang out together. We’re always together. That helps us on the field, I believe, a lot.”
On Saturday, if all goes well for the Black Bears, perhaps they can hoist a trophy together.
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: