ORONO — The University of Maine’s football team made great strides in Joe Harasymiak’s first fall as head coach. Now the Black Bears face a bigger challenge of keeping the momentum moving forward.

Maine finished 6-5, 5-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association, after winning a total of just eight games the previous two years.

But that’s not good enough, Harasymiak said.

“That’s got to be the expectations, that 6-5, 5-3 is not where we want to be,” he said Monday. “As more days go by I’m sure I’ll reflect more on the positive. But I’m still disappointed in Saturday and the way it ended.”

Maine’s season ended Saturday with a last-second 24-21 loss to rival New Hampshire, the Black Bears’ seventh consecutive loss to the Wildcats. Maine led at the half, then faltered in the final two quarters, its offense struggling to move and its defense unable to slow down the Wildcats.

Junior cornerback Najee Goode, one of the team’s most consistent performers all season, said the season showed “what we’re capable of, of being a very good team on all three levels. We’ve got to build on that.”

And that began Monday. The Black Bears had their final team meeting Monday afternoon, setting goals for the offseason and the 2017 season.

They’ve got some work to do.

On offense, they have to once again settle on a quarterback. Senior Dan Collins took every snap in an up-and-down year – 18 touchdown passes but also 16 interceptions – but he also showed how good this offense can be when run correctly.

Now Harasymiak and offensive coordinator Liam Coen will need to find out whether Drew Belcher (who was redshirted this year and has two years remaining), Jack Walsh (who will be a redshirt sophomore next year) or Chris Ferguson (who will be a redshirt freshman next fall) will be the guy.

“And we’ll probably recruit one or two (quarterbacks),” said Coen.

Harasymiak and Coen professed faith in the three quarterbacks on their roster, with Harasymiak noting each brings a different element to the huddle: Belcher’s running ability, Walsh’s field instincts and Ferguson’s strong arm.

Coen said the next quarterback has to be able to make the same types of big throws Collins made this year, but also cut back on the inconsistencies and interceptions that plagued the offense this year.

“In this offense, you don’t need to force the football to be successful,” he said. “It’s clock and game management, running the ball and play-action passes. In the games that we did that, we were successful.”

The competition, he said, “has already started.” He wants to see who takes the lead in the weight room, who pulls receivers together to throw in the offseason, who devours game films.

Coen likes what Maine has coming back at running back – freshman Josh Mack led the team with 712 yards and six rushing touchdowns – and at wide receiver. The top six receivers return, led by sophomore Micah Wright (44 catches for 688 yards and seven touchdowns) and freshman Earnest Edwards (20 catches, 334 yards, three touchdowns). Four starters also return on the offensive line.

Mack knows he has to put the work in the weight room this year because “next year there’ll be no surprises.” Coen stressed that an offseason is about getting “bigger, stronger and faster.”

In looking at the season finale against New Hampshire, Coen said Maine’s offensive line had no push against New Hampshire’s bigger defensive line in the second half. “We need to take the next step up front and become a dominating force and run the football,” he said.

Defensively, there are three huge holes to fill – lineman Pat Ricard and Darius Greene and linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga. All were four-year starters.

Their leadership, as much as their ability, will be difficult to replace. “During offseason workouts you knew those guys were going to be there working,” said defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman. “They were the guys other guys looked up to. Now we need to find the leaders of the 2017 team.”

They are looking for young players such as Schuyler Huntington, Alejandro Oregon, Charles Mitchell, Andrew Stevens and Uchenna Egwuonwu to step in and contribute more. Defensive ends Dakota Tarbox and Connor Walsh also improved as the season went on.

Linebacking is deep too, with Sterling Sheffield, Austin Brown and Taji Lowe returning.

“We see the potential we have,” said Sheffield, who finished third in tackles with 65. “And we’re holding each other accountable, that’s a characteristic that Coach Harasymiak has instilled in this team.”

And the secondary comes back intact, led by Goode and freshman Manny Patterson at the corners. Darrius Hart, DeAndre Scott, Jason Matovu, Jeffrey DeVaughn and Sinmisola Demuren all played at the safety positions this year.

“We’ve got to (pay attention to details) to make sure we tighten everything up so we can get better,” said Goode.

The Black Bears are also putting a heavy focus on discipline this offseason. They felt they lost too many games because of undisciplined plays. Going back to last Saturday, Maine had a first-and-goal and ended up having to punt after being called for two 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalties on the same play.

“It’s going to be about the attention to detail, it’s going to be the discipline and it’s going to be pushing through,” said Hetherman. “It’s 6 a.m. on a Friday morning in February or March. Are you going to finish the workout? Are you going to finish the game? Or are we going to stay where we are?”

 

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