ORONO — There will be a decidedly Maryland swagger to Maine’s defensive backfield next season.
It’s already evident as the football team concludes spring practices this week. You can hear it in the constant chirping of a quartet that is supremely confident and eager to make its mark.
“We’re competing every day. We come out here and we say, ‘We’re the best on the field at all times.’ I come out here, I say, ‘I’m the best on the field,’ ” said junior cornerback Sherrod Baltimore. “I believe it and I play like that.”
Baltimore, who started the final two games of Maine’s 10-3 season last fall, is from Fort Washington, Md. He is expected to be the right cornerback this fall, opposite Axel Ofori of Gaithersburg, Md.
Senior Khari Al-Mateen, a Baltimore native, returns at free safety. Hard-hitting sophomore Davonte Burke, of Galesville, Md., will join him as the last line of defense, getting his first playing time for the Black Bears after being academically ineligible last year.
They are among 10 Marylanders on Maine’s roster this spring, a coincidence that reflects the Black Bears’ growing reputation in the mid-Atlantic, according to Coach Jack Cosgrove.
“Our program has expanded its recruiting boundaries into the footprint of the conference,” he said. “We’ve gone down there and paid our dues with time, effort and energy. You’re going to have some rewards when you do that.”
The Colonial Athletic Association includes Towson in Maryland, but also Delaware and Virginia-based schools William & Mary and James Madison.
“In the past those players might have said, ‘Maine? Where’s that?’ ” Cosgrove said. “Now we have more recognition down there.”
Maine will have to replace safety Jamal Clay and cornerback Kendall James, but there is potential for this unit to be even better, said defensive backs coach Greg Webster.
“Their strength is their enthusiasm and their love to play. They come out here high energy every single day,” Webster said. “You’ll hear them chattering all the time but they have fun out here, too.”
Maine’s spring practices conclude at 10 a.m. Saturday with the annual Jeff Cole scrimmage at Alfond Stadium, which is free to attend.
Fans should watch Baltimore and Burke carefully.
The two came to Maine as a package deal of sorts. They had seen each other once before at a football camp in Maryland, lining up for drills.
Baltimore arrived in Orono first. When Burke showed up for his recruiting visit, he thought his host for the weekend looked familiar.
“He’s the reason why I came. He showed me a good time on my visit,” Burke said. “It made me feel like a part of a family.”
Baltimore, who was Maine’s scout team player of the year two seasons ago, had 22 tackles and one fumble recovery last year while playing in all 13 games. At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, his strength is in his technique, honed from hours of watching film. He prides himself on being the first to arrive for team meetings and staying after practice to study tape. He’s planning on staying on campus all summer to get an edge on the competition when autumn arrives.
“I ain’t the fastest guy but I’m quick,” Baltimore said. “If you read the film and you know what’s coming, it’s easier.
“I want to be great, man. I want this defense to be great. We all have the same mind-set. We want to two-peat (as CAA champion).”
Burke is 6-1, 200 pounds. He already has built a reputation as a bruising tackler.
“I like to hit, put a shoulder on people,” Burke said. “I’m not scared of anything. I’m fearless, I don’t care, I just go.”
Webster said Burke has put on 20 pounds of muscle since arriving at Maine, the result of weightlifting sessions while waiting his chance to contribute on the field. That time is about to arrive.
“You’re going to see a lot of me,” Burke said. “I’m hungry. I’m ready to play.”
The newcomers will need to mesh quickly with Al-Mateen and Ofori, who missed the spring season with an injury but will be ready for summer camp, Webster said.
“Physically, those guys are there. It’s just a matter of making it second nature,” Webster said. “So if they’re supposed to be staring at the tight end, their eyes aren’t in the backfield.
“If they’re not as fast as some guy from (James Madison) or Richmond, they can make up for it with their football knowledge and instincts.”
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: