And so it begins.

The University of Maine’s football training camp opens Wednesday afternoon when the Black Bears take the field at Alfond Stadium in Orono for their first practice.

The Black Bears are coming off a surprising 6-5 season, with a 5-3 record in the tough Colonial Athletic Association. But they were selected ninth in the CAA’s 2017 preseason coaches’ poll, something that second-year head coach Joe Harasymiak will certainly address when he gathers his players around him at the start of practice.

“I think we’re used to that,” he said. “Last year, I think we were picked ninth and finished fourth. We just look at that for extra motivation for the guys and coaches.

“It’s something this program is used to, getting overlooked. Hopefully we can prove a lot of people wrong.”

Like any year, there are lots of questions facing Harasymiak and the Black Bears before the season opener at New Hampshire on Aug. 31.

Here are some of them:

WHO WILL BE THE QUARTERBACK?

With the graduation of strong-armed Dan Collins, Maine enters another season not knowing who its quarterback will be. Harasymiak said he plans on naming a starter after the team’s second scrimmage on Aug. 14.

Redshirt junior Drew Belcher, who has started nine games and has been in the middle of the quarterback puzzle the last three years, is one of the contenders, along with senior transfer Max Staver, redshirt freshman Chris Ferguson and freshman Isaiah Robinson of Bowie, Maryland.

Robinson joined the group over the summer and has been impressive. During spring football, Belcher, Staver and Ferguson each had their moments. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Staver, who began his career at high-powered Florida and also played at Houston Baptist and Tyler Junior College, displayed the strongest arm. But that won’t necessarily mean anything.

“We’re creating as much competition as we can at that position,” said Harasymiak. “It comes down to one thing: execution. The quarterback has to manage the game, make good decisions with the football – that hurt us at times last year – and make things happen.

“It’s really just about executing the offense. We’ve got to get better at that. We’ve got to have a quarterback who will put us in good situations.”

WHO WILL STEP UP ON DEFENSE?

The strength of last year’s defense was up the middle with linemen Pat Ricard, Darius Greene and linebacker Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga. They’re all gone. Ricard is in the Baltimore Ravens’ training camp and Mulumba Tshimanga is starting for the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL.

“Those were four-year starters,” said Harasymiak.

Replacing them isn’t going to be easy. And it’s not going to take a group effort.

On the line, senior Schuyler Huntington, junior Andrew Stevens, sophomore Charles Mitchell and redshirt freshman Skylar Bowman will look to step in. At linebacker, Maine has Sterling Sheffield – third on the team in tackles last year and a first-team preseason all-CAA pick – but needs more.

“Every year you have that position where guys have to step up,” said Harasymiak. “It just happens to be in the middle of our defense this year. We have talent out there, they’re just young guys. The CAA is going to demand that these young guys step up.”

WILL THE KICKING GAME IMPROVE?

Maine converted only 1 of 7 field-goal attempts last year, and Harasymiak admitted that affected the play calling when the offense got into the red zone. He’s hoping for better this year, starting with incoming freshman Kenny Doak, a five-star, nationally ranked kicker from Perkasie, Pennsylvania. He’s on scholarship.

“I know we made a good signing,” said Harasymiak. “But it’s not going to be handed to him.”

Doak will have to compete with returning kickers Brandon Briggs, Derek Deoul and Patrick Leonard. The latter two are also competing at punter.

“This is something that has got to be fixed,” said Harasymiak. “I think we took a step in the right direction.”

WHAT ABOUT HOMEGROWN TALENT?

When it comes to players from Maine high schools, Dakota Tarbox stands out. The senior defensive end from Thornton Academy played in 11 games last year and had 20 tackles. He’s part of a group of defensive ends that could be a strength, including Uchenna Egwuonwu, Alejandro Oregon, Kayon Whitaker and Connor Walsh.

Look for senior Spencer Carey of Fairfield and Lawrence High to play a big role as well. The versatile Carey has played safety and wide receiver but was moved to linebacker and looked good in spring football. He’s also one of Maine’s top special teams players. “I think he’ll be a major contributor,” said Harasymiak.

Davis Turner, a sophomore linebacker from South Paris and Oxford Hills, also could be a contributor on defense.

HOW GOOD CAN THE OFFENSE BE?

Four starters return on the offensive line, led by left tackle Jamil Demby, a preseason all-CAA first-team pick.

The wide receiving corps is deep and talented, led by junior Micah Wright, another preseason all-CAA first-team selection after catching 44 passes and scoring seven touchdowns last year. The group includes senior Jaleel Reed and sophomore Earnest Edwards, who is an exceptional kick returner.

Maine is also deep at running back, with sophomore Josh Mack (team-high 744 rushing yards and six touchdowns), senior Nigel Beckford and junior Darian Davis-Ray. The latter two have been injury prone. If they stay healthy, this could be a potent backfield.

“I think we have a lot of returning pieces,” said Harasymiak. “Those positions are well-stocked to put around a quarterback. But now we’ve got to take the next step in those groups.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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