ORONO — With eight starters returning from one of the nation’s best defenses a year ago, the University of Maine’s football team is facing high expectations. One publication has ranked Maine sixth in its preseason poll of Football Championship Subdivision teams.

The Black Bears’ defense, however, is content to set its own high standards.

“Really the expectations for the Black Hole haven’t changed at all,” defensive coordinator Mike Ryan said after Maine’s first preseason practice Thursday morning at Alfond Stadium. “Every year it’s been our expectation, whether it’s Joe (Harasymiak) as the coordinator or Corey (Hetherman) as the  coordinator, every year I’ve been here, our expectation is to be the top defense in the country.”

And they certainly could be. The Black Bears have a fearsome front seven, led by junior linebacker Deshawn Stevens (team-high 120 tackles in 2018) and senior lineman Kayon Whitaker (team-high 9.5 sacks). The secondary is led by senior cornerback Manny Patterson, who was named to the Buck Buchanan Watch List on Thursday as one of the 25 best FCS defensive players in the nation.

If Maine is going to repeat its 2018 success – a 10-4 record,  Colonial Athletic Association championship and Football Championship Subdivision semifinal appearance – the defense is going to lead the way. The Black Bears had the nation’s best run defense a year ago, allowing 79.2 yards per game, and play an attacking style that puts pressure on every offensive player.

“If you look at the  history of this program, the Black Hole has been the stamp of this team,” said Stevens, 6-1, 250 pounds from Toronto. “When we got here as freshmen, we saw how things were done. The expectation has been to improve on what you did before. And that’s the way it is now.”

In addition to the returning starters, Maine gets back several players coming off injuries or a redshirt season. Linebacker Jaron Grayer fought injuries all season but still finished with 42 tackles.

Cornerback Jordan Swann, who transferred last year from Connecticut, is back after missing the last 10 games with a right thumb injury. Defensive back Joshua Huffman, a senior, is back after sitting out last year as a redshirt. He started at cornerback in 2017 but is likely to be one of the two new safeties this year.

And senior defensive back Jeremiah Dadeboe recently transferred to Maine from Buffalo, giving Maine more experience in the secondary.

“There’s a lot of depth,” said Ryan, who added the Black Bears are four-deep with starters at cornerback. “And that creates competition at a lot of positions.”

“We just want to be the best we can,” said senior linebacker Taji Lowe, last year’s second-leading tackler with 85. “Just do the little things right, practice the right way, do everything we need to be the best.”

Six defensive players live together, helping create a bond that Stevens said helps the defense in tight situations. “It comes down to trust,” said senior defensive lineman Alejandro Oregon. “If I can trust my men behind me, then all I need to worry about is me and doing my job”

Patterson said the team’s success is the result of all the work they’ve done – and must continue to put in. “You’ve got to act like every practice is a game,” he said. “All these expectations people have for you, you’ve got to achieve them in practice first.”

NOTES: Junior quarterback Chris Ferguson had this assessment of the first day of practice: “I think, overall, going into my fourth camp, this was the best first day we’ve had as a team, just being smooth, knowing what’s going on overall, guys making plays.”…

Running back Joe Fitzpatrick (back) and wide receiver Earnest Edwards (hamstring) did not participate in drills. They pedaled the exercise bike  on the sideline. Wide receiver Devin Young was ill and not at the practice …

Sophomore tight end Michael Laverriere of Arundel and Thornton Academy was getting a lot of reps with the first and second units. Laverriere, the 2016 James J. Fitzpatrick Trophy winner, has missed much of the last two years because of injuries. Thursday, he caught a couple of passes from Ferguson. He shared the position with Shawn Bowman, a redshirt freshman from Bear, Delaware. “Good to be back out there,” said the 6-foot-1 Laverriere, who has  bulked up to 230 pounds. “Everyone’s kind of rotating through. We all have to earn our play.” Laverriere said he feels good about where he’s at now. “I’m just trying to be a well-rounded player,” he said. “Be that guy they can go to, put me in anytime and I’ll do my job, play to the echo of the whistle.” Coach Nick Charlton said the reps were established at spring practice and summer workouts and that it’ll be a while before starters are named. Of Laverriere, Charlton said, “He’s a tough kid. And doing the things we ask our tight ends to do, that’s pretty necessary. He’s a smart young man and had success in high school.” …

Matthias Staalsoe, a 6-3, 285-pound sophomore from Copenhagen, Denmark (who played at the Taft School in Connecticut), was playing left guard with the first unit …

Of the transfer running backs, sophomore Jordan Rowell (from Northern Illinois) ran with the first unit and grad student Emmanuel Reed (from Buffalo) ran with the second. Both got off some good runs and showed good hands in catching the ball out of the backfield. “That competition is going to go for a little bit,”  said Charlton …

Maine opens its season at 6 p.m. Aug. 30 against Sacred Heart at Alfond Stadium.

 


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