ORONO — Josh Spearin spent the first day of spring leaping and lifting, stretching and straining, hoping and dreaming.
After three years of watching older teammates perform in what has become something of a rite of passage, Spearin was one of 11 University of Maine football players weighed, measured and quantified by a professional scout from the New England Patriots on Wednesday morning.
They call it Pro Day on the Maine campus, a time for seniors who have expended their collegiate eligibility to show their stuff in hopes of landing a professional contract or at least an invitation to a mini-camp.
“They put us through a lot of tests,” said Spearin, an offensive tackle from Limington who played at Bonny Eagle High. “I watched last year’s class go through their Pro Day. I knew at some point I’d be working out and giving it a shot. I never imagined it would be a legit shot. I just thought I’d go out and do what I can and see what happens.”
The NFL draft is scheduled for April 25 and it lasts for seven rounds. Most of the players expected to be taken were invited to an earlier workout in Indianapolis.
That’s what happened a year ago with Jerron McMillian, plucked from the Orono campus by the Green Bay Packers in the fourth round. McMillian was the 14th Black Bear to be selected in the NFL draft, and first since the Falcons took Daren Stone in the sixth round in 2007.
A more likely path to pro football, should any of this year’s crop by invited, would come by way of a free agent signing. Such was the case for 34 other Black Bears, including Trevor Coston (Bears), Derek Session (Bills), Pushaun Brown (Jets) and Derek Buttles (Bills) last year.
“I have not heard ‘draft pick’ like we heard last year with McMillian,” said Maine head football coach Jack Cosgrove. “These guys have been evaluated on (video). It’s more of (scouts) getting numbers on the players that aren’t our numbers.”
The other Black Bears working out Wednesday along with Spearin were fellow offensive linemen Chris Howley and Garret Williamson, linebackers Donte Dennis, Troy Russell, Doug Alston and Sam Shipley, defensive back Darlos James, defensive tackle David Toriola and wide receiver Maurice “Mo” McDonald.
Brown, a running back who failed to stick with the Jets, also returned to campus for another shot at Pro Day.
Activity started early, with measurements of height, weight, hand size and wingspan in the Latti Fitness Center, followed by vertical leap and maximum repetitions for bench-pressing 225 pounds.
Spearin leaped an impressive 31 inches. Howley, after hearing the top offensive lineman in Indianapolis maxed out at 35 reps, hoped to match or beat that number. He happily settled for 34.
“I’ve been waiting for (Wednesday) for a long time,” said Howley, a May 2012 graduate who had been training since Christmas break at a facility in northern New Jersey with teammates Dennis and Williamson. “When I came to Maine, I was just hoping to get a starting spot. I never thought that I’d be working out for Pro Day.”
Approximately two dozen teammates watched as the proceedings shifted from the weight room, outside through the snow, to the artificial turf inside the Mahaney Dome, where Patriots scout Frank Ross measured standing broad jumps and held a stopwatch for agility drills, shuttle runs and a 40-yard dash.
“To have teammates who still have eligibility come out to support you, that was great,” McDonald said. “It was everything I thought it was going to be. You have the nervousness that sets in in the beginning, then just the excitement. I think it was a great tryout for everybody.”
Ross, who spent the previous day gathering similar data at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, will write a report on each player and enter their times and measurements into a database accessible by every NFL team.
“All the NFL scouts can get to it and look at your results,” Spearin said. “If they’re interested, they’ll contact you.”
Current Black Bears in the NFL include McMillian, Buttles, Jeremy Kelley (Colts), Mike DeVito (Chiefs) and two players who might not have gotten a chance if not for impressive performances on their own Pro Days in Orono: Montell Owens of Jacksonville and Matt Mulligan of St. Louis.
Owens was a back-up tailback at Maine until his senior year, so there wasn’t a lot of video highlights for teams to see. Mulligan was a late bloomer who played soccer and basketball in high school. Now Owens, a fullback, is a Pro Bowler and Mulligan, a tight end, recently signed a three-year contract.
“Those two guys are the ones who made this day work for them,” Cosgrove said. “They really helped themselves.”
Their stories are well known to all 11 who strived and strained Wednesday for the stopwatch, the measuring tape and the unblinking eye of the video camera.
“That’s hope, right there,” Dennis said. “I played with guys and I see they can do it; and if they can do it, I know I can, too. Let’s keep on generating Maine guys who are going to the next level.”
Notes: Cosgrove lost two of his assistants to other programs. Defensive line coach Dennis Dottin-Carter, who spent five years in Orono after his playing days were over, joined the new staff at Delaware and strength coach Dan Nichol took a similar position at Western Michigan, also after five years with Maine.