ORONO — The University of Maine had the top-ranked defensive unit in the Colonial Athletic Association a year ago, giving up an average of 283.4 yards per league game. Much of that success was built against the run, where the Black Bears had the CAA’s best run defense (79.1 yards) by nearly 50 yards.

This year Maine’s secondary is looking to make its mark as well. While still young with no seniors among the unit, the group of defensive backs has a lot of players who gained valuable experience during last year’s 3-8 season.

Juniors Najee Goode, A.J. Dawson and Tayvon Hall all return at cornerback, while safeties Sinmisola Demuren, a sophomore, and Jason Matovu, a junior, are also back.

“We always have something to prove,” said Goode, who had one interception and eight pass break-ups (tied for second in the CAA) last year. “Every year I’ve been here it’s been that way and we kind of like that. If we’re going to be the underdog of the defense, if that’s the case, we take that with a smile.

“I like that we’re hungry and we want to get better. We’re always talking about how we can get better every day, every practice.”

The return of Darrius Hart, a junior safety from Toms River, New Jersey, should help. Hart, who played in eight games and started three as a freshman, was hurt in the season-opening 24-3 loss to Boston College in 2015 and didn’t play again. He suffered a micro-fracture of his right knee that required surgery on Oct. 16.

“I feel stronger, I feel faster, I feel smarter,” Hart said during Maine’s media day on Wednesday. “I worked hard. I lost a lot of body fat, down from 14 percent to about eight or nine. All that time off got me into the playbook and studying film.

“I just feel like a better all-around player.”

His return, said standout defensive tackle Patrick Ricard, will bring an edge to the secondary. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, not only does he bring size but is considered an outstanding tackler. In other words, he loves to hit people.

“It’s huge,” Ricard said of Hart’s return. “He plays really tough, he’s a good tackler. He’s going to get the job done”

Goode added that Hart will “help us take the next step as a defense in the secondary.”

Corey Hetherman, the Black Bears’ defensive coordinator, said Hart also brings a leadership quality to a young unit.

“He’s someone who knows the system inside and out,” said Hetherman. “And he has stepped up (in the preseason) and made the calls. He’s done a really good job so far.”

Hart, 20, is currently second on the team’s depth chart at free safety to Demuren, who started eight games last year and made 34 tackles. And that’s all right with him right now.

“Even if I didn’t get hurt last year I’ve still got to win a spot,” he said. “It’s never guaranteed … Mentally I’m there, I’ve just got to show them I’m there physically with my knee. If I’m not (a starter), I’ve got confidence and don’t mind coming in the rotation.”

Hart said he was injured on the second or third series of last year’s opening game when a BC receiver tried to cut block him.

“I didn’t use my technique good enough and got in on me,” he said. “He didn’t hit me too hard. But I planted my foot and it sounded weird and it felt off. I finished the game but the next morning I woke up and it was as big as a basketball.”

He tried to come back three weeks later but had to stop after just two days of practice. Surgery followed, then rehab. During that time he believes he became better by watching his teammates, picking up tips on techniques they were using.

“I learned to appreciate the game a little more,” he said. “And I had to sit back and coach up my teammates. I got to see what they were doing that could maybe help my game get better.”

Now he’s using everything he’s learned to get back on the field and help the Black Bears improve a pass defense that ranked 10th in the CAA last year.

“We definitely are getting better,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of strides. We’re a tight group now. We’ve been together for two years. And we sat down and said there shouldn’t be any more errors, any more mistakes, because we are the veterans now.”