Michael Gerace didn’t come from Bel Air, Maryland, to Orono, Maine, to stay on the sidelines for the University of Maine football team.

“It’s every kid’s dream to play at the Division I level,” said Gerace, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound freshman offensive lineman. “I came here and I wanted to contribute to the team, and get some playing time. But honestly, I never thought I’d be starting as a true freshman and playing as much as I did.”

Gerace played in nine games this fall for the Black Bears, starting five. And he’s not the only freshman to do that. Cornerback Katley Joseph of Ottawa, Ontario, also played in nine games and started five. Linebacker Adrian Otero of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, played in 10 games with one start. Defensive back Donnell Henriquez of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, played in eight games.

In all, 11 of the 33 freshmen on Maine’s 85-man roster played in at least one game this fall. And their contributions – on offense, defense or special teams – had much to do with Maine’s success.

The Black Bears (8-3 and winners of the Colonial Athletic Association) will play Jacksonville State (9-3) in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at noon Saturday at Alfond Stadium.

While the NCAA instituted a new redshirt rule this year – allowing players to participate in up to four games and not lose a season of eligibility – the Black Bears have never been shy about playing freshmen.

“If a kid’s ready to play, they’re going to play,” said Coach Joe Harasymiak. “The new rule has helped us on special teams especially, just in terms of managing it.”

The NCAA allows a player five years to complete four years of athletic eligibility. The extra year is called a redshirt season. In the past, if a player appeared in one play of one game, it counted as a full season of competition – unless the player received a medical redshirt for a season-ending injury. The new rule allows a player to appear in four games without losing a year.

Maine has several freshmen who have appeared in four games, such as defensive lineman Jalik Heyward of Wilmington, Delaware.

Harasymiak said barring injuries on the defensive line, Heyward won’t play again this season, no matter how far the Black Bears go.

“We want to save him,” said Harasymiak. “He’s been a monster for us on the kickoff team but we’re not going to burn his redshirt for that.”

It’s that type of roster management that coaches are now considering. A player can use his redshirt season at any time in his five years – senior tight end Drew Belcher, for example, used his two years ago – but each case is considered on an individual basis.

“It’s a combination of doing what’s best for the team and what’s best for the individual,” said Nick Charlton, Maine’s offensive coordinator. “We’re not looking at this as a need to redshirt someone.

“It’s more, is he ready to play or not?”

Gerace, Joseph and Otero were ready. They all got their first starts because of injuries, but Harasymiak said they were physically and mentally ready to play immediately.

Gerace got his first start in the second game of the season, at Western Kentucky (a Football Bowl Subdivision team), when center Chris Mulvey was injured. “It was nerve-wracking,” he said. “But the older guys helped calm me down and we won the game.”

He played so well that Gerace has been in the lineup most games, even playing at left guard when Migel Garcia was injured. What he’s doing isn’t normal, according to those around him.

“I’ve always said that the hardest positions to play as a true freshmen are offensive line and quarterback,” said Charlton. “And he’s done a nice job, stepping in and making all the calls. He’s a great kid, everything you’d want in your program.”

At center, Gerace has to make all the blocking calls for the offensive linemen, so that involves a lot of film study and a high football IQ, something Harasymiak said he clearly has. “When a freshman plays, his football IQ has got to be extremely high,” he said.

Senior left tackle Cody Levy has been impressed by Gerace since they first met. “There’s definitely a big learning curve,” said Levy. “Not only are you not physically the biggest guy out there anymore, but you’ve got to focus on technique and fundamentals more. The mental aspect is huge. If you can’t do that, it really doesn’t matter how fast or strong or quick you are.”

Otero, 6-1, 223, also got his first start in the Western Kentucky game. He finished with six tackles. “His first college game, against an FBS school, he got over 70 snaps,” said Corey Hetherman, Maine’s defensive coordinator. “He played exceptionally well that day. He’s done a great job for us all year.”

Joseph, 5-9, 175, got his first start at cornerback in Maine’s fourth game, at Yale, after Jordan Swann went out with an injury. He completed the regular season with 20 tackles, six pass breakups and one interception.

“I had it in the back of my mind that I would play,” said Joseph, who actually arrived in Orono last January. “I just didn’t know when they would put me in.

“It was a matter of staying patient and doing whatever I could to contribute. I’m one of the youngest (defensive backs) and I learned a lot from the older guys. Seeing them compete at a high level made me want it even more.”

While many freshmen didn’t play at all, Joseph said they’re all sharing in the glory of those who did.

“We’ve developed a special bond,” he said. “We’re all grinding and trying to find ourselves, not only as football players but as people. And we’re pretty tight. We all support each other.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH


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