Dante Hamilton started this football season wearing jersey number 52 for Portland High. At halftime of the third game, he switched to 48. Since then, and through Saturday’s Class A state championship game, Hamilton wears 31.

The reason for Hamilton’s sartorial subtraction has nothing to do with mathematics or subterfuge. It has everything to do with the Bulldogs overhauling their lineup to cover for the loss of their linchpin: tailback and middle linebacker Nick Archambault.

Archambault went down early in the third game of the season, at Windham, after planting his foot on the natural turf and feeling his left knee buckle. He remained in the game for one more play, but the same thing happened.

“At that point I was like, this hurts,” Archambault said. “I have to come out.”

One of the eight seniors who have been in the program since they were freshmen, Archambault is a captain and the undisputed leader of a team that also reached the 2015 Class A state title game, losing 24-14 to Thornton Academy.

“He was physically and emotionally our leader,” said wingback Jake Knop, another senior captain. “We would all look up to him. He would give us the speeches.”

“Nick’s one of the best players in the state,” said senior tackle Nick Giaquinto. “You can’t lose a player like that and not be affected. But I think we managed to bounce back pretty well.”

Here’s how Coach Jim Hartman and his staff shuffled players and positions at halftime of that Windham game: Dylan Bolduc became the primary running back and on defense shifted from strong safety to middle linebacker; quarterback Issiah Bachelder moved from free safety to replace Bolduc at strong safety; sophomore Ben Stasium came off the bench to play free safety; tight end Ethan Hoyt moved to fullback; Hamilton, a backup guard, replaced Hoyt at tight end. As an eligible receiver, Hamilton had to wear a jersey below 50 or above 79 so as not to confuse officials or opponents.

“They’re incredibly athletic,” Hartman said of his resilient seniors. “They’re all tremendous athletes and you can do more with athletes.”

Archambault also had handled punting duties, regularly thumping 50-yard spirals. After experimenting with Hoyt in the second half against Windham, a 42-21 Portland victory, Hartman turned to his quarterback, Bachelder, who had punted only a few times in junior varsity games.

“Our special teams coach, Tim Marr, came in and said I was going to be the new punter,” Bachelder said. “So we started working on that. I just catch it like a regular shotgun snap and kick it as hard as I can.”

The tinkering worked. Bolduc wound up running for 1,224 yards and 14 touchdowns. Bachelder ran for 449 and 11 touchdowns, and passed for 1,141 yards and 18 TDs.

The transition from strong safety to middle linebacker proved more difficult, but Bolduc wound up with a team-leading 91 tackles (33 more than anyone else), returned an interception for a touchdown and forced two fumbles.

“Our coaches do a good job of explaining to us more than one position,” Bolduc said. “It’s a big part of football; people can get injured. You can’t let that ruin your whole season. You’ve got to let the next guy step up and show what he can do.”

After dropping their opener to Scarborough 14-13, the Bulldogs reeled off nine straight, with the only single-digit margin of victory coming in a 35-27 decision over Cheverus in early October.

At that point, Archambault was working his way back, aiming to return in time for a regional final rematch with Windham.

An MRI had revealed a severed anterior cruciate ligament and partially torn meniscus. Playing with a brace would overcome the ACL loss, but there was danger that further tearing of the meniscus could lead to lifelong complications.

“I wanted to play again,” Archambault said earlier this week while seated on a weight bench, one arm draped over a barbell, after his teammates had gone out to practice at Fitzpatrick Stadium. “I started lifting, working out. A few weeks later I was sprinting, going full speed, running, shuffling.”

His hopeful rehab came to an abrupt halt at a Portland High pep rally as the knee buckled again when Archambault attempted to slap hands with Knop. Last week, two days before a come-from-behind 27-14 victory over Windham in the regional final, Archambault underwent surgery.

“It was obviously disappointing that I would miss so much of my senior year,” he said, “but it was more so disappointing to me because that’s not how I wanted my football life to end, on a pointless handoff where I get hurt. And my last memory of having pads on is looking up at the sky. It just kind of stunk.”

Instead of sulking, Archambault, who is ranked sixth in his class academically, helped break down film. He became another coach, trying to help Bolduc learn the subtleties of middle linebacker.

“He has a very good mind for football,” Bolduc said. “If the running back is lined up on a different side of the quarterback and that’s a tendency of a team to run or pass, he’ll point that out to me and I’ll pick up on it. If I don’t catch it in the middle of a play, he’ll tell me at halftime.”

On Saturday, Archambault will be back on the sideline, using his crutches and his experience, contributing what he can against a formidable opponent in Bonny Eagle.

Dylan Wike, a senior center, spoke for many of the Bulldogs when he touched on the emotional lift his injured friend and teammate provides.

“It’s in the back of my mind,” Wike said, “and I know it’s in everyone else’s as well, to go out there and get Archie a Gold Ball.”