Former Cheverus High star Joe Fitzpatrick (27) is the only returning running back this year in the University of Maine backfield. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photo

ORONO — The University of Maine football team faces a familiar quandary heading into the season.

Who is going to run the ball?

A year ago, that was the key question coming into training camp after Josh Mack, who led the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing in 2017, transferred to Liberty. He was replaced by Ramon Jefferson, who last year led Maine in rushing and became the first freshman in program history to run for over 1,000 yards.

This year, the Black Bears face the same question after Jefferson was given his release to transfer after he had been suspended by the school for an off-campus incident.

The Black Bears, coming off a 10-4 season that saw them reach the FCS semifinals, will begin to find out who steps into that lead running back role Thursday morning, when training camp opens. Junior quarterback Chris Ferguson, entering his third year as Maine’s starter, is confident someone will step forward.

“Obviously there was a scare when Josh Mack left,” said Ferguson. “We had just lost our all-America running back. And now we’ve lost another one. Well, guess what, the same thing is going to happen this year. I think with Josh Mack leaving and Ramon stepping in last year shows what we can do.”

There is reason to be confident. Maine returns a veteran offensive line that features five players who started at least eight games last year, led by junior left guard Liam Dobson, a 6-foot-2 330-pounder from Ottawa, Ontario, who was named to the all-Colonial Athletic Association preseason first team.

Emmanuel Reed

But senior Joe Fitzpatrick, of North Yarmouth and Cheverus, is the only back returning with any game experience for the Black Bears. He played in 13 games last year, rushing for 476 yards and four touchdowns. The rest of the running back group is going to be new, led by a couple of transfers from Football Bowl Subdivision schools – grad student Emmanuel Reed from Buffalo and sophomore Jordan Rowell from Northern Illinois.

Nick Charlton, Maine’s first-year head coach, likes what he’s seen in workouts from the newcomers. But, he added, “At that position, you don’t know what you have until they put pads on on Day Three and they do their thing.”

What both Charlton and Fitzpatrick like about the new backs, including freshman Curtis Murray, is how hard they have worked to learn the offense. “These guys are all eager to learn because they all want to play,” said Fitzpatrick. “And everyone is picking up things faster than I thought, to be honest.”

Jordan Rowell

They see an opportunity to play. “Coach (Charlton) let us know that no one’s job is set in stone,” said Rowell, 6-1, 210 pounds from Elmhurst, Illinois. “That’s something everyone has to hear because even if you were a starter last year, you’ve still got to wake up every day and compete because you still want to carry the ball.

“I see this as a good opportunity, not just for me but all the guys. Everyone is fighting for a spot. Even though Fitz has had touches, I’m sure he’s working his butt off right now so he can keep his spot.”

With his size, Rowell could be the Black Bears top inside runner. But he hasn’t carried the ball in a game since high school, where he rushed for over 6,000 career yards. Reed, 5-8, 195 pounds from Crestview, Florida, also showed inside power while at Buffalo, where he rushed for 1,244 yards and 10 touchdowns in 29 games.

How much playing time they get will be determined by how quickly they learn the offense. “The faster I can learn the playbook, the more reps I can get on the field,” said Rowell.

“We’re learning,” said Reed. “Every day.”

And he knows he can’t relax. “I’ve just got to come in and do what I’ve got to do,” said Reed. “That’s being a great teammate, helping the young guys, working hard. That’s the first thing, working hard, showing the guys that I’m serious, that I want to play. And I have to prove myself every day.”

Maine’s offense is hugely dependent on the running game. Charlton made that clear earlier this week at the annual Maine college football coaches kickoff luncheon in Brunswick. “I believe certain programs have an identity,” he said. “And at UMaine, you have to run the ball.”

Last year Maine’s running game ranked sixth in the Colonial Athletic Association, averaging 134.4 yards per game, to help the Black Bears win the conference title. In 2017, Maine ranked third, averaging 174.2 yards per game. The year before Maine averaged 140.5 yards a game, ranked ninth in the CAA.

Having Fitzpatrick back is important. He played a big role in Jefferson’s development a year ago and has emerged as the leader of this group of running backs.

“That’s something that, when I came here, Nigel Beckford was huge for me, he helped me out a lot,” said Fitzpatrick. “Getting pointers from players can be really helpful. We have great coaches here, but sometimes maybe having the perspective of someone who’s in it with you, as far as going out and practicing every day and having to run the plays … having a few pointers here and there can maybe help you think differently.”


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