Football is perhaps the ultimate team game, with multiple moving parts all needing to execute effectively in order to achieve the desired results. However, sensational quarterback play can do more to negate a team’s mistakes than any other position on the field. Throughout much of Maine’s outstanding 2013 season, that’s exactly what the Black Bears got from Wasilewski. Now, with Wasilewski’s eligibility up, Coach Jack Cosgrove needs to find his next leader under center, although he understands it’ll be a minor miracle if he gets the same level of production at the position as last year.
“We’ve got some talent at the quarterback position,” Cosgrove told Fill The Steins last week on the season premiere of our FTS Podcast. “Not Marcus Wasilewski talent, but there’s talent there.” Since our interview with Cosgrove the night before last Tuesday’s Blue-White Scrimmage, he and his offensive coaching staff must’ve learned they’ve either got more talent or less talent than they thought at quarterback. As of this post on Wednesday morning, Cosgrove is still mulling his options as to who will start under center in Saturday’s season opener in Orono against Norfolk St.
Most who follow the program closely felt the job was redshirt sophomore Danny Collins’ to lose. Since the beginning of training camp, though, true freshman Drew Belcher has impressed the coaching staff “with his arm…with his feet, and his ability to learn our offense,” said Cosgrove. This is seemingly leading Cosgrove and his staff to a very difficult choice: whether to start the more known commodity in Collins, whose decision-making and character were called into question this offseason after a brush with the law, or to roll the dice with a true freshman in Belcher, something a Hall of Famer like Cosgrove understands to be high-risk, high-reward.
Regardless of who gets the call under center against Norfolk St. and in Maine’s subsequent games, the Black Bears will have a tremendous lack of experience at quarterback. As a result, Maine is going to need even stronger performances than they got last year from all other phases of game. Specifically, the Black Bears’ success in another loaded CAA conference will hinge on their ability to protect their rookie quarterback on offense and to stop the run on defense.
“One of our main points of emphasis this year is improving our ability to pass-protect,” said running backs coach Roosevelt Boone in the university’s official football preview on their YouTube channel. “I’ve spent a lot of time with [offensive line coach] Jeff Ambrosie just trying to learn what he is teaching his guys up front so I can make it an easier transition for the backs.”
The Black Bears will need that support from the running backs in the pass protection game. With eight of the team’s 12 offensive linemen either true or redshirt freshmen, there isn’t going to be much experience in front of an inexperienced quarterback, which could spell trouble for Maine’s passing attack. Fortunately for Ambrosie and the Black Bears, the most experience they do have on the offensive line is at center, where Maine will be returning junior Bruce Johnson. Johnson started all 13 games at center for Maine last season and is on this year’s preseason All-CAA team.
“The biggest thing for us is finding the best five [lineman],” said Ambrosie. “The key to our success up front is always attitude, effort, and discipline.”
Those same three characteristics will be critical for the Black Bears on the defensive side of the ball as well. With so many new faces on offense, much of Maine’s success this season will be dictated by their ability to keep their opponents out of the end zone. Perhaps the best news for the Black Bears heading into the 2014 campaign is the level of talent and experience on the defensive side of the ball.
“Our front seven is the strength of our defense,” said defensive coordinator & linebackers coach Joe Harasymiak. That strength is led at linebacker by 2013 CAA Defensive Rookie of Year Christophe Mulumba and junior Cabrinni Goncalves, both of whom had over 200 tackles last season. On the defensive line, Maine returns Westbrook’s own junior standout Trevor Bates and junior Michael Kozlakowski, who missed the entire 2013 regular season due to injury after being a disruptive force (9.5 tackles for loss; five sacks) as a part of Maine’s 2012 defense.
“The biggest thing for us is stopping the run,” said defensive line coach Jordan Stevens. “That’s where it starts for us.” If Maine is successfully able to stop the run on first and second down, they will be able to rely on a senior-laden secondary, led by Axel Ofori (who led the team in interceptions a year ago), Khari Al-Mateen, and Patrick Pascal to get the defense off the field and put the offense in position to be successful.
It’s difficult to know exactly where a revamped team like Maine will finish in the ever-strong CAA. As we discussed on the aforementioned podcast, with six CAA teams ranked in the preseason FCS top 25, one or two key plays in one or two games could make the difference between finishing at the top or at the bottom of the league. There are also a ton of variables and unknowns that will go a long way in dictating Maine’s level of success this year. Perhaps they get unexpectedly stellar play from the quarterback (or quarterbacks, depending on how things go). Maybe the Black Bears will sustain fewer injuries than CAA favorites UNH, Villanova, and Richmond. Possibly Maine gets a lucky bounce or a big call to go their way in a key spot.
All of those things are unknown. What is known is that Maine football has the university’s most consistent, most successful active coach at the helm. Coach Cosgrove and his staff will have his team ready to play and will implement game plans on both sides of the ball to maximize the team’s strengths (its run defense) and minimize their weaknesses (its passing offense). What is also known is the old saying “defense travels”, which will be important for Maine, who have only five home games this season.
Despite all the obstacles seemingly facing the Black Bears this year, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, we predict Cosgrove and his staff will coach ’em up and lead the team to a 7-4 overall record and a 5-3 conference record in 2014, which will include a win in this Saturday’s season opener against Norfolk St. While those records will probably leave them short of a second consecutive CAA regular season championship and out of the FCS playoffs, they will far exceed the preseason expectations of a seventh-place conference finish. And if Coach Cosgrove’s team taught us anything last year, it’s to not sell them short.
How do you think Black Bear Football will do in 2014? Leave your predictions in the comments section below and join the conversation on Twitter using #FillTheSteins!
Photo courtesy: 92.9 The Ticket