ORONO — The offensive line is in flux. The top two wide receivers are nursing hamstring injuries. The starting quarterback remains a tantalizing mystery.
This would be an opportune time for tailback Nigel Jones to provide stability for the University of Maine football team.
And he knows it.
“I think I’m going to be a smarter player,” Jones said Tuesday after the Black Bears’ offense sputtered in its final scrimmage before the Aug. 30 opener. “I want to be the guy this year. When we need that yard, I want to get that yard, no one else. Last year I was a little loud. This year I just want to be quiet and go to work.”
Jones rushed for 596 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore last year. He is the only experienced running back entering this season.
But running backs coach Roosevelt Boone said that doesn’t necessarily mean the starting job is his. There are four youngsters pushing Jones, including true freshman Nigel Beckford, who ripped off another 90-yard sprint in Tuesday’s scrimmage, only to be brought down at the 2-yard line.
“The more they consistently show that they can carry the load, the better it is for Nigel (Jones),” Boone said. “Without competition he can become complacent, and complacency gets you killed in this league.”
Jones said he’s been working on catching the ball better in daily drills with his roommate and possible starting quarterback, Dan Collins. He’s learning to be a better pass blocker. In short he wants to provide some peace of mind for an offense that dearly needs it.
He played sparingly near the end of Tuesday’s scrimmage. Jones said that was because the coaches wanted to evaluate the younger players, who also include redshirt freshmen Jerickson Fedrick and Vassili Grigorakos, and true freshman Darian Davis-Ray.
Beckford, though, provided the biggest jolt of energy to the offense with that 93-yard run, in which he found a seam in the middle of the line, broke through two arm tackles and was quickly in the clear before fading as the goal line neared.
He made a similar play in last week’s scrimmage. This time, as then, his great run was quickly followed by an interception in the end zone.
“I can’t let that happen again,” Beckford said of his near-touchdown. “As you can see, it results in turnovers. I’ve got to finish.”
Beckford, from Bridgeport, Connecticut, didn’t commit to Maine until May after making three trips to Orono. He said the biggest issue has been trying to learn the playbook quickly. His efforts Tuesday were not pristine. He and fellow freshman quarterback Drew Belcher had a bad exchange that resulted in a lost fumble.
“I think he’s a little bit more than what we thought he was,” Coach Jack Cosgrove said of Beckford. “He has shown a toughness, very good lower-body strength, natural.
“The running back position, the list could be very short in a hurry. So yeah, I think he’s got a chance (to play as a true freshman).”
That’s unusual for a Cosgrove-coached team. But Jones also was able to contribute right away.
Belcher took repetitions with the starting and backup offensive unit as well, showing he’s a serious contender to earn the most important job of summer camp.
Collins, a redshirt sophomore, and redshirt freshman Daniel Hoffer also got a long look, all with mixed results.
Cosgrove was frustrated by his three quarterbacks. A fourth contender, Kellen Croce, was used exclusively as a receiver, indicating he’s not in the mix to be the starter.
Wide receivers Damarr Aultman and Arthur Williams both sat out with hamstring injuries. Cornerback Axel Ofori Jr. was on crutches with a balky ankle. Offensive tackle Benedict Wezel has a sprained shoulder and didn’t play.
Cosgrove is hopeful that all four will be healed in time for the Aug. 30 game against Norfolk State.
Amid all that uncertainty, Jones offered some clarity.
“My job is to take the pressure off of (the quarterback). I want to be the consistent guy. Every time I get the ball, get five yards, to make it easier on him,” said Jones, a compact 5-foot-9, 198 pounds.
“We’re young. It’s not the talent part, it’s getting the playbook, knowing your technique. All the footwork has to match. But we’ll get there.”