ORONO — Dakota Tarbox admits it was frustrating when he first arrived at the University of Maine to play football.

He had been a two-way all-star for Thornton Academy in Saco, winning a Class A state championship his senior year. But when he arrived in the fall of 2013, like so many first-year players, he wasn’t ready to play at the Division I level and was redshirted, meaning he practiced but never played in a game.

“It really humbled me,” Tarbox said recently. “You come in here and you were one of the best players on your high school team, and when you get here everyone is the same thing. Everyone was one of the best players on their high school team. So that really humbled me to learn that there were players just as good and giving just as much effort to play on the field.”

But Tarbox kept at it and is now competing for a starting defensive end spot, looking to replace – if possible – the graduated Trevor Bates, who was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the spring.

“Whenever times got tough, I thought about how much I love this game and how much I wanted to be part of this team,” said Tarbox, now a rugged 6-foot-3, 240-pound junior. “I thought about how badly I wanted to help out, to get wins. Being part of a team like this is beautiful, especially up here in Maine. There’s nothing else like it.

“We don’t have all the facilities in the world up here but we have each other and we really grow as a family.”

Tarbox, who has gained 30 pounds since joining the Black Bears, has been working with the No. 1 defense in practices. While position battles are ongoing – and Tarbox is vying with sophomore Connor Walsh of Milton, Massachusetts, for the weak-side defensive end spot – first-year coach Joe Harasymiak said he likes what he has seen from Tarbox.

“Dakota is a kid who loves football, there’s no doubt about that,” said Harasymiak. “We’ve never doubted that since he’s been here. He started on the offensive side early, then moved over and has really taken off. He brings a physical toughness to our defense that we will need at that position.”

Harasymiak said Tarbox defended the run extremely well in last Saturday’s scrimmage. “He’s doing a great job,” said Harasymiak. “There’s no doubt he’s playing. If he starts, that’s up to him.”

Pat Ricard, the veteran defensive tackle on the Black Bears’ defensive line, likes that physical aspect of Tarbox’s game.

“He’s not the biggest guy in the world but he plays hard,” said Ricard. “You can go far if you play hard.”

Tarbox, who is one of the 14 Mainers on the roster, arrived at Maine as a tight end. After his first year, former coach Jack Cosgrove switched him to defensive end, where he was behind Bates and Mike Kozlakowski.

He’s had limited playing time behind them. As a redshirt freshman, he got in six games with one tackle. Last year he got in all 11 games on special teams and made two defensive tackles, one for a loss.

Ricard had a talk with Tarbox last year when it became obvious Tarbox was frustrated with a lack of playing time.

“I tried to tell him that Trevor and Koz were pretty good and had been here a while,” said Ricard. “He’s serious about it. He wants to play. He wants to start. He loves football.”

Tarbox said the lessons he learned in that first year, along with everything Bates taught him, brought him to this point.

“Your freshman year, it’s all about humbling yourself and showing your commitment to the team,” he said. “You’re not going to play but you’re doing all the workouts, you’re doing all the conditioning drills, you’re doing the grind. At the end of the day it’s a gut check to see if you can go through the process and work your way up the hierarchy.”

Tarbox said Bates not only showed him how to play the position but how to conduct himself.

“Maybe I didn’t get to play early but I really learned a lot from him,” said Tarbox. “Now it’s my time to step up and help the team get some wins.”

Corey Hetherman, Maine’s new defensive coordinator, said there’s a huge difference in Tarbox’s play this year from last.

“It’s night and day,” said Hetherman. “He put in the work this offseason, bought into the weight room and worked hard all summer. He’s doing very well.”

Tarbox knows the competition is tight and he can’t let up.

“I’ve got to come ready to play every day,” he said. “Every day I’ve got to get a little better. I can’t get comfortable; I can’t settle for where I’m at.

“I’ve got to come every day and give it my all, and show these coaches that I’m ready to help the team in any way.”

NOTES

DAN COLLINS took a step toward securing the starting quarterback spot with his play in the scrimmage last Saturday. Collins, a senior, threw three touchdowns, along with an interception (off a pass that was deflected at the line) and completed around 60 percent of his passes – a big improvement over last year when he completed just 49.5 percent of his passes. “What impressed me the most is that he’s taking control of the ball,” said Harasymiak. “Drew (Belcher) and Jack (Walsh) probably didn’t play as well as they would have liked but they’ll have a chance to do better this week.” Maine will have its second scrimmage at 2 p.m. Sunday. Harasymiak said he wants to name his starting quarterback after that. “We kind of have a picture right now but that can change,” he said. “We want to make a decision after the second scrimmage and we will.” … Defensive tackle Pat Ricard, running back Nigel Beckford and wide receiver Jordan Dunn didn’t play in the first scrimmage as they recover from injuries and/or off-season surgery. Harasymiak expects all of them to play Sunday.