ORONO — The University of Maine enters the football season without the back (Josh Mack) who led the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing last fall before transferring after the season. Maine also lost four starters on the offensive line to graduation, including one (Jamil Demby) selected in the NFL draft.

Yet the Black Bears don’t seem fazed.

“I think we’re going to be great running the ball, even better than last year,” said junior running back Joe Fitzpatrick. “We’ve got a lot of backs, a lot of good offensive linemen. Obviously we’re missing an NFL tackle but I think we’re going to be all right.”

Fitzpatrick, a North Yarmouth native who starred at Cheverus High, isn’t the only one who thinks the Black Bears’ running game will overcome key losses.

“We got pieces in the offseason,” said sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson. “We brought some guys in and they’re going to step up. The offensive line is going to step up. They work so hard, they’re dedicated and they love the game. And that’s the important part.”

Maine, coming off a disappointing 4-6 season in which it went 3-5 in the Colonial Athletic Association, opens its season at 7 p.m., Aug. 30 against rival New Hampshire at Alfond Stadium. UNH has won the last eight games between the schools and 15 of the last 16.

Fitzpatrick, who rushed for 382 yards last year, is expected to be one of Maine’s lead backs, along with redshirt freshman Ramon Jefferson. Tyrek Cross, a junior transfer from Mesa Community College in Arizona, is also expected to be part of the rotation.

They’ll be called upon to make up for the loss of Mack, who transferred to Liberty University after rushing for an FCS-best 1,335 yards and scoring nine touchdowns.

Senior tackle Cody Levy, who along with center Chris Mulvey has starting experience on the line, doesn’t see a drop-off.

“I mean, someone else is going to get those carries,” said Levy. “But that doesn’t mean we’ll lose that productivity.”

The 5-foot-10, 220-pound Fitzpatrick, who was held out of Maine’s first scrimmage to allow a tweaked hamstring to continue to heal, averaged 6.0 yards per carry last year. He’s expected to play in the team’s second scrimmage on Monday.

Jefferson, a 5-9, 175-pound back from Harry S Truman High in New York, is a breakaway threat who can also run between the tackles.

“As an offensive lineman, you like to see someone run somebody over,” said Levy. “And then you like to see a guy make someone miss or help set up a block downfield.”

Fitzpatrick is entering his fourth year at Maine and has grown into his role. “Last year I thought I took a big step,” he said. “But I want to take a big leap this year and I think I can do that.”

Being a Maine high school graduate gives him some extra incentive, too.

“To be able to grow up in southern Maine and then play in Portland, and to be able to come up here and continue playing is special,” he said. “Every time I go home, people ask me about the football team, and they all watch the games. I take a lot of pride in that. I know some kids in Maine can be overlooked in the recruiting process, so it’s good to come up here and prove everyone wrong.”

And Fitzpatrick wants to dispel the notion that he’s merely an inside runner.

Yes, that’s where he’s most effective – “third-and-2, you know Joey Fitz is going to get the first down,” said Ferguson – but Fitzpatrick said he’s added some downfield moves after watching former teammates Nigel Beckford and Darian Davis-Ray. Beckford has graduated and Davis-Ray is academically ineligible, according to Coach Joe Harasymiak.

“Maine high school football, I didn’t do a lot of moves. I didn’t need to,” said Fitzpatrick. “I’m definitely a downhill back. … My freshman year (at Maine), I didn’t know how to make those moves on people. But watching Beckford and (Davis-Ray), I put two and two together. Now I can run over people and juke them a little bit, too.”

Jefferson was highly regarded as a recruit after rushing for 5,456 yards and 52 touchdowns in high school. “Ramon has as much talent as I’ve seen here,” said Harasymiak. “His vision is exceptional and his cuts … he never slows down his momentum when he makes them. He’s unique.”

But, Harasymiak cautioned, “Mentally he’s got to mature. He’s a redshirt freshman and he’s never been popped in the mouth by defensive linemen from New Hampshire. And he’s never had to pick up a blitz in a pressure situation. But physically and talent-wise, he’s up there.”

Jefferson is eager to play after sitting out a year. “I’ve been thinking about this,” he said. “I’m ready to get back on the field.”

He knows he has work to do – especially in pass blocking – but said, “I’m confident and can just go and play now.”

Needing depth at running back, the Black Bears recruited Cross over the summer. In two years in junior college, he rushed for 467 yards and six touchdowns.

“He’s still figuring it out and coming into his own,” said Nick Charlton, Maine’s offensive coordinator. “He’s done a nice job and just has to continue to learn the offense. But he brings an element and a physicality to his game, to running the football specifically.”

And that’s important.

“It’s what we like,” said Charlton. “Ultimately, at the University of Maine, you’ve got to run the football. We’re going to be able to throw it, but ultimately you’ve got to run it.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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