ORONO — If you flip through the list of all-conference linebackers who played football for the University of Maine, you’ll find that Stephen Cooper, Lofa Tatupu, Andrew Downey and Brent Naccara had something unusual in common.
They all played quarterback in high school.
“A lot of times, the best player on a (high school) football team is the quarterback,” Maine coach Jack Cosgrove said. “A lot of times, the quarterback is also the captain, because he’s put in leadership roles. We’ve made a big deal over the years of recruiting quarterbacks.”
Some eventually take a few snaps at Maine. Most find a home on defense, either in the secondary or, if they hit the weight room and bulk up, at linebacker.
Such is the case with junior Troy Eastman, a high school QB from Rahway, N.J., who came to Orono as a 192-pound free safety, shifted to strong safety when he got bigger, and eventually landed at linebacker next to his old Pop Warner and high school teammate, Donte Dennis, a fifth-year senior who is one year older.
“I was the tailback, he was the quarterback,” Dennis said of their youth football days. “Troy was always QB1.”
The Black Bears (3-5 overall, 2-3 Colonial Athletic Association) take on No. 10 James Madison (6-2, 4-1) Saturday afternoon at Alfond Stadium, where they are hoping to win for the first time this fall.
Dennis leads Maine in tackles with 72. Eastman has 48, just behind fellow linebacker Troy Russell (50) and strong safety Khari Al-Mateen (52). Eastman also has a 92-yard interception return for a touchdown in Maine’s 24-19 loss to No. 17 Towson in Maryland. It happened when Eastman faked a blitz when Towson lined up with an empty backfield — an alignment that led to a blitz every time Maine’s previous opponent, Delaware, had used it — then popped back up to pluck off an intended slant pass to a receiver who also thought Eastman would be rushing the quarterback.
“He was not a highly-recruited guy, but he is a football guy,” Cosgrove said. “He gets it. He has an understanding of the game and he works to improve himself.”
At 6-foot-1 with an additional 30 pounds since he arrived on campus in the summer of 2009, Eastman often finds himself going up against bigger, stronger offensive linemen.
“I’m more athletic than the O-linemen,” he said, “so a lot of times I’m able to make them miss.”
Eastman, 21, sports a full black beard and, on his right shoulder and bicep, an elaborate tattoo that includes angels and the words “My Brother’s Keeper.” His fraternal twin brother, Roy, who played wide receiver for a year at Southern Connecticut, has the same inscription.
“We got them in high school, going into our senior year,” Eastman said.
Only one other college besides Maine expressed any interest in Eastman when he was in high school, and that was Northeastern, which abandoned its football program a year later.
After he visited Dennis in Orono, Eastman was sold on Maine’s state university, where he is studying Child Development and Family Relations with plans to one day become a guidance counselor and perhaps a coach.
The Black Bears have quite a few players from New Jersey, so the recent hurricane that devastated the state is cause for concern.
“The town’s pretty banged up,” Eastman said of Rahway, located in central Jersey. “No power, but everybody’s safe.”
Eastman enjoyed a unique perspective of the final play in last year’s dramatic 25-24 overtime victory at James Madison, when quarterback Chris Treister helicoptered into the end zone for a successful two-point conversion.
“I was one of the (pass receiving) options,” Eastman said. “I felt like I was open, but he made a great play, which was fine with me, as long as we got in the end zone.”
The year before, Maine’s 4-7 season ended in Orono with a 14-10 loss to James Madison, which tackled tight end Jeff Falvey three yards from the end zone in the final seconds and the Black Bears couldn’t get off another play.
So records and rankings may not mean all that much when these two programs meet.
“Anytime we step on the field we play to win, no matter what our record is, no matter what is in front of us,” Eastman said. “Especially for the seniors, we want to send them out with a winning season.”