ORONO — Everyone agrees that Joe Harasymiak is a “players’ coach.”

That’s an easier label to wear when you have accomplished players.

And Harasymiak, the new defensive coordinator for the University of Maine football team at the tender age of 28, appears to have a group with the potential to rank among the nation’s best.

You can hear it in the constant woofing and whooping on the defensive sideline during practices. You can see it in the chest-thumping swagger of middle linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga. And you could feel it whenever defensive end Michael Kozlakowski, his jersey ripped open at the abdomen, stormed off the field spewing expletives during the team’s final scrimmage last week.

These guys are ready to roar. And they’ll need to be, starting Saturday when the Black Bears open the season against Norfolk State.

Maine will go as far as Harasymiak’s defense takes it this year.

“He’s a passionate guy, but he always gets his message across. We all respect him. I’m excited to play for him. I can’t wait,” said senior safety Khari Al-Mateen, the leader of the secondary.

Maine finished 10-3 last year, winning the Colonial Athletic Association title for the first time. Marcus Wasilewski led a potent offense, but he has graduated and the Black Bears have yet to decide on a starting quarterback for this season. Expecting to score 30 points per game again this year seems unrealistic.

The defense ranked third in the CAA by allowing 22.1 points per game, and was the league’s best against the pass, at 176.9 yards per game. But big plays were lacking, with just 21 turnovers generated. Those numbers will need to be even better this year to compensate for an offense in flux, and the coaches and players know it.

They also know they’re capable of it.

“To be an elite defense, you have to be great tacklers and force turnovers,” said Harasymiak, who coached defensive backs at Maine the past three seasons. “You’ve got to make the tackles one-on-one, in space, because that’s the way the game is played now. We’ve got guys who can do that.”

Mulumba Tshimanga and Cabrinni Goncalves each had more than 100 tackles a year ago from their linebacker spots. Junior Randy Samuels will complete that trio as a first-year starter. At 6-feet and 215 pounds, he will play in the box, especially on first and second downs, where his run-stopping skills will be counted on. But he’s also proven he can cover receivers one-on-one, and so will get to remain on the field for passing downs.

Samuels said standing alongside Mulumba Tshimanga gives him confidence.

“He takes a lot of pressure off me to make plays because everyone’s attracted to him. So I can just do my thing,” said Samuels, from Bronx, New York. “I’m a little nervous for my first start. I don’t know how I’m going to do, but I want to come up to expectations because Coach has put a lot of pressure on me to be great.”

Al-Mateen will direct a promising, if largely unproven, quartet of defensive backs, a task made more difficult at season’s outset since senior cornerback Axel Ofori Jr. will miss at least the first two games with an ankle injury. Redshirt freshman Najee Goode figures to start in his place, with Sherrod Baltimore opposite him and hard-hitting Davonte Burke paired with Al-Mateen at safety.

Al-Mateen isn’t worried. He’s experienced, smart and driven. His goal is to be an All-American this season after breaking up eight passes a year ago, intercepting one, and recovering two fumbles. He’s become a surer tackler and is fixated on being a ballhawk. Once he makes sure his teammates are aligned properly, he has freedom to roam the field in search of the football.

“I have the attitude that it’s mine and I’m going to take it,” Al-Mateen said. “At the same time, if we make solid tackles and don’t allow any yards after contact, we’ll be a much stiffer defense. There are a lot of situations where we’re in the right place at the right time, but we just need to make that play. I think that’s going to be a big difference from last year to this year. We’ll make those tackles when we need to.”

Up front, Maine will line up Matthew Wilson (305 pounds) and Darius Greene (285) in the middle. Their goal is to consume as many blockers as they can so that Trevor Bates and Kozlakowski can use their speed to find direct routes to the opposing quarterback. Bates had four sacks a year ago. Kozlakowski could only watch the mayhem from the sidelines after he ruptured a bicep while making an arm tackle in a preseason practice. He was able to work his way back into the lineup for the Black Bears’ playoff loss to New Hampshire.

But it wasn’t the same.

“The hardest thing ever was to sit out against Rhode Island when we won the conference and to see my teammates run out on the field and to not be there in my pads suited up with the guys and to really feel that feeling. I felt a part of it, but at the same time, I just still felt a little outside looking in,” Kozlakowski said. “That drives me to be the best player I can be right now.”

Kozlakowski, a junior, can be a demon. Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove said the staff has had to rein him in in the past, to curtail his tendency to make a beeline for the quarterback without regard to his containment responsibilities.

Those issues seem to be over.

Harasymiak said he is striving to keep his defense simple, a 4-3 scheme that puts a premium on stopping the run on first and second downs, then turning players like Kozlakowski loose in passing situations. It’s not a big departure from years past, but does play to the strengths of this year’s squad, which has a number of aggressive players.

The mantra has been “Violence, Swarm, Excitement.” In other words, shed your blocker, sprint to the ball-carrier, and then celebrate loudly once you’ve made the play.

No wonder the players have responded.

Cosgrove said he had no hesitancy to promote Harasymiak after Paul Ferraro left in December. Harasymiak had been his “right-hand man,” Cosgrove said, and Ferraro recommended him for the role. Cosgrove prefers to look within first before filling key assignments.

“He’s really been on the fast track. He’s got a growing football mind,” Cosgrove said of Harasymiak. “He’s got a coaching voice. It’s kind of got some volume to it. It smacks you a little bit with authority and yet intellect.”

Harasymiak, a New Jersey native, played cornerback at Springfield College. His coaching career began in 2008 at Maine Maritime, where he mentored the defensive backs. He followed that with two years at his alma mater, coaching wide receivers and quarterbacks, just to see things from the other side of the ball.

Then it was on to Orono, where he’s made a climb quicker than he envisioned.

“Have I gotten lucky? Absolutely,” Harasymiak said. “But I also feel like I’ve worked myself into this spot earlier than some other people.”

Being young helps him relate to the modern athlete. The players all call him “Coach H.” He feels his players are more relaxed and he’s less apt to chew them out. Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll is a role model.

Harasymiak concedes that he’s feeling more pressure now that he’s in charge of the defense. But he thinks that, just like in his playing days, the nerves will subside after the first play Saturday and he’ll quickly lose himself in the flow of the game.

Al-Mateen used the word “genius” to describe Harasymiak.

The coach winced when told this.

“I wouldn’t label myself. I haven’t proven anything yet,” Harasymiak said. “We’ll find out this year.”

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