ORONO — Josh Mack is off to a spectacular start for the University of Maine football team, leading the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing with 179 yards per game.

Yet Mack, a 19-year-old sophomore from Rochester, New York, knows he still has much to prove, starting Saturday when Black Bears (1-1) visit top-ranked James Madison (3-0).

“Those two games so far were good games,” he said. “But at the same time, the defenses we’ve played weren’t as good as the one we’re going to see this week. JMU is one of the best, in the nation and in the (Colonial Athletic Association). That’s what will test my abilities and my skills. That’s going to be not just a test for me, but our offense.”

The Dukes are a fierce opponent, allowing just 209.3 yards per game, fifth-best among FCS teams, and only 56.7 on the ground, 11th in the nation.

“To go against one of the best defenses in the country is exciting,” said Mack. “This game is going to take a lot of patience out of all of us. They’re a good team.”

Patience is something Mack is still learning about. As impressive as his start has been, he finds himself fighting the urge sometimes to try to do even more. Against New Hampshire, Mack rushed for 103 yards, but he still winces at the memory of a second-quarter play in which he was hit not once, but twice, behind the line and still tried to reverse the field. Instead, he was tackled for a 12-yard loss.

“In high school, I could do that,” said Mack. “I could reverse the field, it was easy. I don’t think I have that high school mind-set anymore, but there are times when I think like that. My biggest thing is I don’t like to go down. I like to make plays. I want to be a playmaker. So I’m trying to make it hard for myself to go down. But there are times when I just have to go down.”

It all comes back to patience. Mack had a breakout game against Bryant, rushing for 255 yards, because he waited for his offensive line to clear the path. Before that, he tried to make yards on his own.

“Week 1, I was just out there running, not really reading my keys or trusting my offensive line,” said Mack. “Then I studied that. And when we got to Week 2, I was more patient and letting stuff develop more. That’s a big part of my game, being patient. And that will be a key for this game. They’re a fast defense and aggressive. I have to set up my blocks more and be patient.”

Liam Coen, Maine’s offensive coordinator, sees it coming. He credits Mack’s continuing maturity – not only as a player, but a person.

“Off the field, he’s become a more mature kid,” said Coen. “And that’s carried over to how he approaches the game, in terms of watching film with Coach (Justin) Flores, talking with the offensive line about plays, critiquing himself – which he did after the New Hampshire game. He came in and he was really hard on himself about some of his paths and his footwork and runs.

“I think, with Josh, it’s never been about talent, it’s always been about maturity and how he approaches the game and how he approaches the work week.”

At 6-foot-1, 198 pounds, Mack combines size and speed for an inside-outside package. He led the team in rushing as a freshman with 712 yards (5.1 per carry) and six touchdowns. He also caught 11 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns.

But he struggled personally at times. He was suspended for one game because he arrived late to practice, and he was suspended for the annual Blue-White spring game. “I’m not going to say I was mad at being suspended,” said Mack. “It was my fault.”

So he went home in the summer and thought about what he was doing.

“It was time away to regroup, to find myself, to mature as a person,” said Mack. “(His freshman year) wasn’t easy. There were many times that I called my mom or my dad. Coach H (Joe Harasymiak) helped. He did a good job in helping me with the transition. He showed he cared.”

Harasymiak had many talks with Mack that helped him adjust to being 10 hours away from home. “I don’t expect him to be easy on me,” said Mack. “My father was never easy on me, my mom was never easy on me. That’s part of growing up.”

Coen said he now sees someone who is growing up.

“Last year, he was having trouble showing up on time for some things,” said Coen. “We have no problems with that now. In fact, he’s showing up early and trying to help the younger guys. My big thing is that Josh is taking responsibility this year, not only for himself but his teammates.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH