ORONO — Riddle me this.

What stands 5-foot-9, has three hearts, six legs and a firm grip on the football?

Answer: The University of Maine tailback.

Heading into the third game of the season, the undefeated Black Bears have yet to settle on a full-time tailback. Coach Jack Cosgrove decided instead to have sophomore Nigel Jones and seniors Rickey Stevens and Zedric Joseph share the position.

“We feel like they’re all capable of playing for us and helping us,” Cosgrove said. “The difference between one to three is  … I don’t know what it is. It’s that slight.”

Stevens, the starter, has 23 carries for 111 yards through two games. Joseph, who moved up on the depth chart because of an injury to Jones, has 24 carries, also for 111 yards.

Jones, who shouldered much of the load in Maine’s long game-clinching drive in last Saturday’s 24-14 victory over the University of Massachusetts, is up to 70 yards in 14 attempts.

“That’s good productivity,” said Cosgrove, pleased with 175 rushing yards from his three-headedtailback against a Football Bowl Championship (FBS) opponent.

The Black Bears (2-0) face Bryant University (2-0) Saturday afternoon at Alfond Stadium with a chance at their first 3-0 start since 2002. As the only home game in the first five weeks of the season, the game is also a campus-wide invitation to climb aboard the Maine bandwagon after a disappointing 2012 campaign that included only one victory in Orono and a plenty of raw, damp conditions.

“This is a big game,” Joseph said. “We want to give the students a reason to come to the games even when the weather is bad.”

Joseph remembers well the 2011 season when the Black Bears advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals. A native of Florida who played two years at a junior college in Buffalo before arriving in Orono, he and linebacker Cabrinni Goncalves — the team’s leading tackler with 20 — sat in the stands that fall, their first on campus. They had taken part in training camp but were removed from the  roster before the first game.

For Joseph the reason was academics. Not all of his junior college credits transfered to Maine.

For Goncalves it was more of a numbers game. There simply wasn’t room.

Joseph is thankful they had each other. They worked out together, became fast friends and are now roommates.

“There were games when it was raining and people were still sitting out there,” Joseph said.

“That showed me that winning overrules a lot. When you’re winning, everybody wants to be a part of it. That’s just the way it is, so that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Joseph, who ran the 100-meter dash in 10.5 seconds to set his high school record, is the speedster of the group. Originally recruited as a wide receiver, he bulked up during his non-football year in Orono and moved to tailback, where he also had experience.

Jones, a power-lifting champion while at his New Jersey high school, is more of a straight-ahead runner.

“He’s the guy who puts you on your back,” Stevens said. “He’s the power. In the weight room as well, you can see he’s very strong. Zedric, he’s elusive, quick. He’ll make you miss.”

And Stevens?

“I just try to be the balance of both,” he said.

The fact that all three stand under 70 inches tall is part of the reason why they landed in Orono, where blue-chip recruits are rare. Not big enough to play college football? More fuel for the fire.

“I definitely feel like we all have a chip on our shoulder,” Jones said. “As running backs, we feel like we want to be the heart of the offense. We can do anything.”

Blocking and pass receiving are also part of the job, and Joseph has done the latter so well that he leads the team in receiving yardage. He turned a wheel route into an 85-yard touchdown reception in the opening 23-6 victory over Norfolk State and broke two big screen passes against UMass, including one immediately following an offensive pass interference penalty that negated an apparent touchdown by Derrick Johnson.

But the main job of the tailback is to, as is reinforced on the walls of Maine’s locker room, “Pound the Rock.” A successful running game opens doors to play-action passing and it allows Maine’s defense a chance to rest.

“With us splitting reps, our bodies are staying fresh,” Joseph said. “On a 12- or 13-play drive, the defense is playing all 13 whereas we’ve got three different backs playing three or four (snaps) at a time. It’s hard for them to keep up.”

Staying fresh and staying healthy becomes even more important with a 12-game season — a calendar quirk that hasn’t happened since 2008 — that includes two FBS opponents with distinct size advantages.

“This definitely preserves us better for the long haul,” Stevens said. “We’re all strong and ready to go.”
Cosgrove’s only tailback concern so far — aside from losing Terrel Walker to a season-ending injury — is that Stevens has lost a fumble in each of the first two games after not losing the handle all of last season.

“It is troubling, because we’re a team that really emphasizes ball security,” Cosgrove said. “You watch our players in practice. We work on, after the runner is secured, getting (the ball) pulled out on defense. We think that’s a great trade-off, the defense practicing that art and the offense being skilled enough to hold on to it.”

Players known to fumble are often targeted by opposing defenses, making it even more challenging to secure the ball.

“Rickey’s working at it and we’re hopeful that those are the last times he puts the ball on the ground this year,” Cosgrove said. “Make no mistake about it. Turnovers are what creates winners and losers.”

A year ago, fumbles by tailback David Hood in the first two games created an opportunity for Stevens to win the starting job. This season, with Joseph and Jones getting plenty of carries, the starter isn’t necessarily the finisher.

“Those are my brothers,” Stevens said of his fellow tailbacks. “We all worked hard for this opportunity and we all feed off each other’s energy. Whatever the coaches feel should go on, I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

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