ORONO — The pads go on Monday for the University of Maine football team. Coach Jack Cosgrove wants to see a few light bulbs go on for his young players, too, especially those competing to be the starting quarterback when the season begins Aug. 30 vs. Norfolk State.
“We want to have a starting quarterback for Norfolk State going into game week. If we needed to go all preseason because there’s a battle, we would,” said Cosgrove, entering his 22nd season as the Black Bears’ head coach. “But I’m also going to say to you that there might be a spot where all of the sudden, whoosh, there’s the guy.”
Who wins the battle to replace Marcus Wasilewski under center will be the biggest story of August, but there will be plenty of other intrigue at Alfond Stadium. Here are five things to watch:
1 Redshirt sophomore Dan Collins enters camp atop the depth chart at quarterback. He appeared in two games last year, completing 4 of 6 passes. That gives him the most experience, and he impressed his teammates this summer with his dedication to working out and studying film with them.
“That kid’s motivation is out the roof. He texts me every day, ‘Let’s watch film,’ and I’m right there with him. He has a real high motor,” senior wide receiver Damarr Aultman raved.
“I really see a bright future for him.”
Still, Cosgrove declared it an open race, joking that even he could end up suiting up for his alma mater.
Kellen Croce and Dan Hoffer redshirted last year. Drew Belcher and Cony High’s Ben Lucas come in with high expectations, but Cosgrove’s preference is to redshirt them as he does with almost all of his freshmen.
“If somebody creates an opportunity through their performance, they’re going to get the opportunity,” Cosgrove said.
“The quarterback position in this game is the most high-profile and demanding. For us, it’s really critical to identify who that guy is.
“There’s a timetable for that to be established but there’s no rush. We don’t need to know on the first day of practice or the 10th day of practice. Those things kind of emerge.”
Collins said he’s not assuming anything, but he did take the lead this summer in bringing the offensive players together for training and study sessions.
“We talked about … how nobody’s job is secure, from the top to the bottom. We’re an inexperienced team and if you’re playing well in camp then you can possibly take somebody’s job,” Collins said.
“Every single day, I go in there being a competitor, and as of right now I can kind of see myself being the quarterback. But at the same time I don’t take any days off.”
2 Who will protect the new quarterback is also in flux. Maine lost three stalwarts on its offensive line – Jeff Gakos, Joe Hook and Tyler Patterson. Cosgrove wants to enter the season with eight linemen ready to play. On the depth chart, six of the team’s top 10 are redshirt freshmen.
Center Bruce Johnson, a junior, will be the leader of the group. Daniel Carriker, another junior, is aiming to return from injury to man right guard again.
“I think we can grow in that position. We have an emerging group of young linemen that I’m excited about,” Cosgrove said.
Those include potential starters Daniel Burrows, John Reddington and Isaiah Brooks. They’ll need to grow up in a hurry.
3 The Black Bears have a pair of senior speed-burners to line up outside in Aultman and Arthur Williams. They combined for 70 catches, 894 yards and eight touchdowns last season. But Maine must replace tight end Justin Perillo and slot receiver John Ebeling.
Collins said the wideouts have been testing his arm strength and quick release this summer.
Aultman has been happy with the results.
“I feel like I have very special speed and I hope that that’s a huge advantage, because you can’t coach speed. It’s something that you’re born with,” said Aultman, who runs a sub-4.4 40. “I feel like that adds an edge to myself. But we’ve been getting our timing right.”
Collins said he’s also been working with “a three-headed monster” of tight ends – Sean Reuss, Max Andrews and Jeremy Salmon. Jason Simonovich also figures to be in the mix.
“I love throwing to a tight end. It’s a big part of our offense,” Collins said. “Those guys are just excited to go out there and play. I’m looking forward to throwing to them.”
Reuss, a sophomore, started three games last season, catching five passes for 74 yards. He is listed as the starter.
Who else emerges at that position could determine the style of Maine’s offense. Cosgrove said he can envision playing four wide receivers at times (Jordan Dunn is first in line to be in the slot, or two tight ends and a fullback for more of a power set, providing he has the athletes to do that.
“If having the tight end on the field every play is better than having a slot receiver for us, then that’s what we’re going to do. Last year we had the luxury of having Perillo and Ebeling. They’re both gone. So can we replace that? Not as quickly, probably,” Cosgrove said.
“If you have depth at tight end you can play two of them. You can get big. We probably have an option at that this year.”
4 There’s little question about the back end of Maine’s defense. The linebacker duo of Cabrinni Goncalves and Christophe Mulumba combined for 229 tackles last year. Junior Randy Samuels figures to join them for what could be an elite unit.
The defensive backs, with Axel Ofori, Khari Al-Mateen, Davonte Burke and Sherrod Baltimore likely to start, are similarly imposing. The preseason will be spent establishing which young players will complement that quartet.
Ofori has been happy to tutor the youngsters, who pepper him with questions during film sessions.
“Why did I break on this? Why did I see that? What made me cut back or break on a ball short?” Ofori said.
“They’re getting bigger, faster, stronger, the typical stuff, but also trying to understand the game.”
Cosgrove emphasized that depth will be needed at linebacker and in the secondary.
“I would say cautiously about those two spots, that we have really high hopes and big expectations of those guys,” he said.
5 One thing’s for certain, this training camp won’t be about getting players in shape. Those days are long gone. All teams spend their summers working on conditioning, and peer pressure can be a powerful motivator not to fail the initial fitness test of the season.
But it’s noteworthy that Cosgrove and his players all said those efforts were even more apparent in Orono this summer.
Ofori said there were more players committed to the drills than in the past.
Collins spoke of working out four days a week with his teammates, then spending another two hours or more studying film together. He said he’s gotten stronger in his legs, which has made him faster.
Aultman said the receivers had competitions among themselves with the goal of never dropping a pass in the practice sessions.
“We talk about family all the time, and this is a big family and we all love each other and you play for the brother next to you,” Ofori said. “We really take pride in that.
“I think we could be better than last year. The effort we put in this summer is crazy. I really see a big difference.”
Cosgrove, who is not allowed to work with his players during the summer, took note that about 70 of them made the sacrifice to stay in Orono and work out. He noted that the school cannot afford to provide room and board for the players, so that some of them end up sleeping on floors.
“I think they see it as a prerequisite to success in the (Colonial Athletic Association), the type of work we do up here in the summer,” Cosgrove said. “It’s something that is not lost on this guy when it comes to evaluating a team, at least its want to win.”