ORONO — If Maine is going to have a fighting chance on the football field this fall, it will need a little more of the attitude that spilled into the open during the final scrimmage of the spring practice season.
Senior defensive tackle Devin Clark was grappling Saturday with his offensive counterpart, redshirt freshman Isaiah Brooks. The whistle blew. Neither player released his grip. Another whistle, more shoving. A helmet went flying and the two had to be separated.
An exasperated Coach Jack Cosgrove ordered both players to the sideline, indicating their morning’s work had reached a premature end.
“We teach them to block to the whistle and he wasn’t going to stop until the other guy stopped,” offensive line coach Jeff Ambrosie said of Brooks. “He’s a gentle giant. I think he was a victim of circumstance on that play.”
Gentle was a good way to describe the Black Bears’ revamped offensive line when spring practice began three weeks ago. Timid would be another accurate adjective. Facing an experienced defensive front seven, Maine’s offense was pushed around throughout.
It was clear Saturday that not all of those issues had been addressed, but there was more spirit – and more success – for the offense in the annual Jeff Cole scrimmage played before about 300 onlookers at Alfond Stadium.
“I’d like to see a more aggressive group, a tougher group and a more disciplined group when we get back (for summer practices). And we’ll get there,” Ambrosie said. “I felt the same way last spring.”
The outcome was certainly terrific for Maine a year ago, when three seniors up front helped propel an offense that averaged 426 yards en route to a 10-3 season. But Jeff Gakos, Joe Hook and Tyler Patterson are gone, and the line used this spring included three freshmen and a hulking German at left tackle who is still learning the sport.
Junior Bruce Johnson, at center, will be the anchor for Maine. Right guard Daniel Carriker, another junior, also started all 13 games last year. He didn’t practice this spring due to injury but will be back in August.
“We came out pretty slow; a lot of guys didn’t know what they were doing,” Johnson said of his linemates this spring. “We’ve got to grow up. We’ve got a lot of guys that didn’t play last year.”
One person who has little room to grow is junior Benedict Wezel, 6-foot-8 and 305 pounds. He picked up football at age 16 after being inspired while attending some NFL Europe games in his native Berlin. Also, he outgrew his chosen sport of soccer.
He attended Salisbury School in Connecticut for one year before coming to Maine to see how far this new sport could take him. Last year he saw occasional action but admitted it was daunting at times.
“I was a little hesitant to step on the field the first time. You gain a lot of experience fast,” Wezel said. “In soccer you have to know some tactics but you basically play by yourself. In football you have to be like one cohesive team. We have to know what the other guy is thinking.”
It’s the thinking that sometimes causes Wezel trouble, Ambrosie said.
“He’s very conscientious of what he does, but if something goes wrong he gets very nervous and he abandons his technique,” Ambrosie said.
“He’s good in the run game. He can cover you up. He’s physical. He needs to play with better pad level and needs to get his feet better. He has to make improvements but we’ll find the guy who can do it. My motto has always been the best five will play. If I’ve got to move Bruce Johnson to left tackle to make sure we’re secure, I’ll do it.”
Wezel’s backup is sophomore Joshua Ingalls, a defensive lineman just two years ago. So Maine needs someone to figure out how to protect new quarterback Dan Collins’ blindside quickly. The pressure for the offensive line to perform becomes more acute with the graduation of quarterback Marcus Wasilewski. Compounding things is the absence to injury of the team’s top two tailbacks, Nigel Jones and Sacoy Malone.
So it’s no surprise that things weren’t always pretty. Still, Collins and his young line put together a couple of touchdown drives, intermingled with turnovers and three-and-outs. There were glimmers of hope and this promise from Wezel.
“I’m trying to get huge,” he said. “The sky’s the limit.”
He was smiling and blocking out the sky while he said this but his meaning couldn’t be clearer.
These Black Bears don’t plan on being pushovers when autumn arrives.
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: