September 27, 2013

Black Bears making a home, and also a name

Derrick Johnson and Axel Ofori have adjusted to life in Orono, and impressed for UMaine.

By Glenn Jordan
Staff Writer

ORONO - When you arrive in Orono as a wide-eyed freshman hailing from a suburb of New York or Washington, D.C., the culture shock can be significant.

Derrick Johnson

Axel Ofori


WHEN: 4 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Robins Stadium, Richmond, Va.

TELEVISION: Comcast SportsNet New England


MAINE OUTLOOK: The Black Bears go on the road for the fourth time in five weeks. Maine is 3-7 in its last 10 conference openers. TE Justin Perillo (8 receptions, 81 yards, TD against Northwestern) gave him more than 100 catches and 1,000 yards for his career. QB Marcus Wasilewski, who was knocked out of the game twice against Northwestern, is only 34 passing yards shy of Dick Devarney (1963-65) on the career yardage list. Maine last won the CAA title in 2002. Coach Jack Cosgrove said redshirt freshmen Darius Greene and Pat Ricard, interior defensive linemen, played their best game of the season against Northwestern.

RICHMOND OUTLOOK: The Spiders are coming off an 8-3 season in which they went 6-2 in conference action, beat Delaware (the CAA's automatic postseason bid recipient) and got snubbed by the NCAA playoff committee. Second-year coach Danny Rocco's club beat his former team, Liberty, 30-21 last weekend with help from 181 rushing yards from Jacobi Green. QB Michael Strauss averages 270 passing yards per game, and has 7 TDs and only 1 INT. WRs Stephan Barnette (104.2) and Ben Edwards (75.7) average 180 yards per game. Both road losses were by two points. Rocco played linebacker for Penn State and Wake Forest.

-- Glenn Jordan

"This place is different," said Jack Cosgrove, the University of Maine football coach. "The isolation, the volume of people, the pace of life. Some guys struggle with it."

Not every football recruit -- heck, not every freshman -- survives that initial experience of college.

"You'll hear stories all the time about our guys and they wondered how they got through the first year here," Cosgrove said. "But they do. And after that they blossom."

Two who figure prominently in the current Black Bears bouquet are senior wide receiver Derrick Johnson and junior cornerback Axel Ofori.

Johnson, who grew up in Hempstead, N.Y., just east of New York City, leads the Colonial Athletic Association with 29 receptions in four games.

Ofori, who grew up in Gaithersburg, Md., just north of the nation's capital, is the newcomer for a secondary ranked second in the CAA in pass defense. He took over at cornerback from Darlos James, one of the two graduated Black Bears from last fall to receive NFL free-agent tryout invitations.

"I learned a lot from Darlos last year," said Ofori, who in the secondary trails only safety Jamal Clay in tackles with 15, and has one of Maine's four interceptions. "What he taught me, I'm using now."

The Black Bears (3-1) open their conference schedule Saturday at Richmond (2-2). The Spiders lead the CAA in passing yardage, and sport dangerous targets in Stephan Barnette and Ben Edwards.

Cosgrove called them "what we think are the two best receivers we'll see this year."

Coming into the season, a major concern of Cosgrove was consistent play from his own receivers, Johnson included.

"I'd have one good practice and the next one would be a bad one," Johnson said. "Or one good game and the next one would be a bad one. This year I've been trying to focus on the little things, on always trying to chase perfection."

Johnson and cornerback Kendall James are the team's two fastest players, with speed more commonly associated with programs such as Northwestern, which beat Maine 35-21 last weekend in Evanston, Ill.

"They get people's attention because of that," Cosgrove said. "The thing we try to do is get (Johnson) the ball on screens and short stuff because you can get some one-on-one (coverage) or some creases on those things, and maybe he can use his speed to get out."

The Black Bears also use Johnson to extend defenses. His 59-yard reception from Marcus Wasilewski against Northwestern came on a deep post route and set up Maine's second TD.

"That was a great read by (Wasilewski)," Cosgrove said. "(Johnson) clearly beat his man."

Ofori is not often the man who gets beat. As a sophomore last season, he gained valuable experience as a fifth defensive back before earning a starting role this fall.

"Axel is a tremendously talented kid," Cosgrove said. "He has become a very important and special player for us. It's exciting to see that as a coach."

Ofori wound up at Maine after other colleges shied away because of a knee injury in his senior season of high school. Louisville was among the schools that retracted a verbal offer.

"Everything happens for a reason," Ofori said. "Fortunately Maine offered me a full scholarship and I took it."

As for the environment in Orono, Ofori has gotten used to it.

"It's a lot different from home," he said. "It's very quiet. It's away from distractions, a good place for me to focus."

TIGHT END Justin Perillo and linebacker Cabrinni Goncalves earned national awards as the FCS players of the week at their positions for the game against Northwestern.

SENIOR TAILBACK Rickey Stevens is likely to miss 6 to 8 weeks with fractured ribs suffered Saturday. He joins a disabled list of tailbacks that includes redshirt freshman Zedric Joseph (broken leg), Terrel Walker (knee) and Isaiah Jones (shoulder). Moving up the depth chart to No. 2 behind sophomore Nigel Jones is redshirt freshman Sacoy Malone.

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

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