ORONO — They were baptized together three years ago, thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to swim for their football lives in the biggest stadium they had played in.

Trevor Bates and Michael Kozlakowski showed that day they belonged, even if their University of Maine football team was walloped 34-3 at Boston College.

Bates got his first start and finished with three tackles. Kozlakowski, thrust onto the field in relief of Mike Cole, brought down six ball carriers, two behind the line of scrimmage.

The freshmen are seniors now and will return to Alumni Stadium at 1 p.m. Saturday as the starting defensive ends for a Black Bear team spoiling to finally knock off the Eagles. Bates and Kozlakowski may even line up side by side in certain passing downs, the better to make a beeline for first-year starting quarterback Darius Wade.

“This means a lot,” Kozlakowski said. “Going up against an ACC team like that, it’s really a time to show as far as our defense, how hard we work, and time for us to really ball out and show our skills.”

For Kozlakowski, the road back to Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, has been paved with rotten luck. After that promising five-sack freshman season, he tore a biceps muscle early in summer practices and lost his sophomore year, save for a brief appearance in a playoff loss to New Hampshire. As a junior last fall, Kozlakowski was in the midst of tearing up the Norfolk State offense in the opener when he ruptured the biceps on his other arm.

It was another lost season.

“I haven’t been on a road trip in two years. I just want to step on the field now,” Kozlakowski said Tuesday, with a gleam in his eye that suggested he was ready to board the bus right then.

While Kozlakowski foundered, Bates flourished, moving from middle linebacker to the defensive end spot Kozlakowski left vacant. Bates was third-team all-Colonial Athletic Association as a sophomore.

He was the Black Bears’ most valuable player last year, when he ransacked offensive lines for nine tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and 60 tackles, which ranked second in the CAA among defensive linemen.

A rangy 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, Bates proved adept at disrupting short passing games, breaking up another seven passes and showing he still has that linebacker’s skill set.

“When he made big plays, they were game-changing plays, momentum-changing plays, score-changing plays,” Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove said. “You talk about guys that make plays and then guys who make plays that really impact the game. He has a knack for that.”

It was a knack that started, Bates said, even before he came to Maine without a scholarship out of Westbrook High. He remembers seeing a picture of another freshman, a wild-looking Kozlakowski with what Bates called “12-pack abs.”

“I said, ‘Who is this dude?’ ” Bates said. “I met him up here and he was just yoked-up big, and I said, ‘This dude is for real.’

“He’s always helped push me whether he’s realized it or not. He’s pushed me to get faster, get bigger, get stronger and then just through all the practices we’ve always competed. Who can make the most plays? Who can get to the quarterback faster? There’s no question in my mind that if he’d been healthy the last two years, he would have been an all-conference player.”

Saturday will be a special day for the bookends, back on the field together for one last go-around. But they’ll also be facing a Boston College offensive line that is replacing all five starters from a year ago, when a Maine defense minus Kozlakowski was worn down in a 40-10 loss.

The Eagles will start two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore that average 299 pounds. BC has a reputation for producing NFL-caliber offensive lineman, so it will almost certainly be a stout group.

And yet.

“They’re young, they’re inexperienced,” Bates said. “I consider myself to have the advantage in that situation, whether they’re at a bigger school or not. It doesn’t faze me. I need to play to my capabilities and execute and be productive, and get after it early.”

Kozlakowski, at 6-3, 250 pounds, is anticipating the chance to make big plays as well. He’s the stronger of the two ends, the self-described “meat and potatoes” guy who can stuff the run but is also moving to tackle in certain situations. Bates is the more athletic player who can drop back into coverage and use his leaping ability to snare passes. He will be used at times as more of an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

Cosgrove said Kozlakowski has managed to remain upbeat through his misfortune.

“It breaks my heart every time I think about it,” Cosgrove said. “I know his private moments are probably not quite as good as his public moments, but he doesn’t really seem to show it. To us, he’s very inspirational.”

Kozlakowski has appealed for a sixth year of college football, since he sat one as a true freshman and missed two others with the injuries. The CAA denied his request because of that 2013 playoff appearance, so he’s taken it to the NCAA, which asked him to write an essay explaining why he’s deserving of one more year.

That decision is pending. Saturday’s game is looming.

“In the back of my head I always keep thinking about that, if this is going to be it or not,” Kozlakowski said.

“Me returning early, it’s kind of coming back now to bite me in the butt. At the time the coaches thought it was good for my mental stability, to be able to finish off playing in a game going into the offseason. And me at the time, I was just so excited to hear from the doctor that I could come back early and play for a conference championship team. I kind of live with no regrets of any of that stuff. This is the best I’ve ever felt. I just really feel like this is going to be my year.”

 


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