ORONO — A funny thing happened on the way to a redshirt season for Darrius Hart.

He showed an innate understanding of football, picking up the Maine playbook quickly. He hit the dining room and the weight room, and packed 17 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, up to 207 and counting.

He shot up the Black Bears’ depth chart at safety.

The 18-year-old start Saturday when Maine hosts No. 8 Richmond, filling in for his injured mentor, Davonte Burke, who was lost for the season after knee surgery.

“Coming in as a freshman, they didn’t think my mind could handle it, so they had me at the bottom of the depth chart,” Hart said Tuesday. “But once camp was going on, I was making plays. I’ve always had a good football IQ but I didn’t think I was going to be playing this year. I’m happy I am, though.”

Hart first took the field in the fourth game of the season, at Towson, and has been rotating in with safeties Khari Al-Mateen, Patrick Pascal and Burke ever since. He has nine tackles this season and has impressed his coaches.

“He’s learned our defense far quicker than some veterans that we had here last spring,” Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove said. “We have great confidence in him playing that position. He’s the best guy we’ve got there. He’s not a guy who’ll be overwhelmed.”

Hart played safety and cornerback at Toms River South High in New Jersey. He also played wide receiver and was the backup quarterback, a testament to his knowledge of the team’s offensive schemes.

Maine looked at his size and coveted him as a safety, telling Hart he would sit out this year while getting bigger and stronger. Burke was his host on his official visit to Orono and the two remain close. Cornerback A.J. Dawson, another true freshman seeing playing time this fall, was on the same visit. They talk about how surreal it is to be suiting up for the Black Bears just a few months later.

“He’s a man now,” middle linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga said of Hart. “He needs to feel like a veteran, not a rookie, because he’s not a rookie anymore, he’s a starter.”

Hart said he’s pleased with how well he’s played but knows the stakes have gotten higher. He needs to be more vocal when calling defensive signals, for one thing. His tackling is solid but could be better. Then there was that potential interception that deflected off his hand in Maine’s win Oct. 25 at Rhode Island. His missed opportunity still haunts him. Black Bear safeties have yet to record a pick this season.

“I plan on getting one this week. (The Spiders) throw the ball a lot,” said Hart, who is still relying on advice from the injured Burke.

“He just lets me know, ‘just play, don’t think about it.’ Because I think a lot as a freshman. He tells me, ‘go off instinct and make plays.’ ”