ORONO — The University of Maine football team opened its spring practice Wednesday on a raw morning that felt little like spring.

Here’s another thing that didn’t feel spring like in Orono – no starting quarterback battle for the first time in five years. Chris Ferguson returns after a redshirt freshman season in which he threw for 2,064 yards and 16 touchdowns. Ferguson certainly looms as the starter in the fall, though he isn’t taking anything for granted.

“Isaiah (Robinson) is here,” he said, referring to Maine’s other quarterback on the roster. “And I’m competing against myself every day, trying to be the best that I can.”

Instead, Maine’s challenge this spring – and into the fall – is to find a running back. Josh Mack, who as a sophomore last fall led the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing with 1,335 yards, requested a transfer in December and left the school.

The Black Bears have five running backs listed on their roster, led by redshirt junior Joe Fitzpatrick of North Yarmouth and Cheverus High. Darian Davis-Ray, a senior, is missing spring practice because of a medical issue.

Fitzpatrick is the only one with any experience. He carried 64 times for 382 yards and a touchdown last fall. Otherwise, Maine is looking at redshirt freshman Ramon Jefferson, sophomore Ted Kubongo, sophomore Elijah Brooks, redshirt freshman Jordan McLune and incoming freshman DaeJuan Sanders.

Coach Joe Harasymiak said he would like to have three running backs in the rotation so no one gets broken down.

“Certainly you want someone of the caliber of an all-league guy,” said Harasymiak, whose team is coming off a disappointing 4-6 season. “But, let’s take the Patriots for example, when’s the last time they’ve had an all-league, All-Pro running back? It’s a system thing. It’s good for us to have three, four guys competing for time.”

Harasymiak sees a much more confident player in the 5-foot-10, 215-pound Fitzpatrick.

“Once you play … you know you always wonder, ‘How good can I be? Do I belong?’ … now that he’s got a year under his belt, he’s just more confident,” said Harasymiak. “He’s been through it. And that means a lot.”

Jefferson, from the Bronx in New York, displayed some explosive speed in last year’s training camp. He could be a factor.

“Ramon is probably our most athletic tailback,” said Harasymiak. “He has the best feet, his vision is really good.”

Neither Fitzpatrick nor Jefferson feel any pressure to replace Mack.

“Each one of us was able to step in last year during any game and any situation and were able to perform,” said Fitzpatrick.

“I’m not worried about any stepping up. I think it’s going to be natural for all of us, not really a big leap.”

The two will certainly provide different running styles. Fitzpatrick is a straight-ahead runner who seems to relish contact. “Maine football,” he said.

Jefferson is “real shifty, quick with his feet” according to Fitzpatrick. In other words, he can make defenders miss.

Jefferson rushed for 5,456 yards and 52 touchdowns at Harry S. Truman High School. He’s looking forward to the challenge after sitting out a year.

“Last year allowed me to learn the plays more and also to get faster and stronger so I’m more comfortable when I go out there and play,” said Jefferson.

Ferguson is certainly confident that this group of running backs can be effective.

“We’ve got guys,” he said. “Fitzy is going to be good, Ramon is going to be good. And whoever else steps in, they’re going to take care of the job.”

Nick Charlton, the Black Bears new offensive coordinator, said it may take until the fall to figure out who that will be.

Harasymiak isn’t looking for quick answers, either.

“I thing spring is just all about development,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest goal for us. I told (the team) after practice I just want one step every day. We have so many new parts and so many new guys in new spots, there’s a lot of new things going on.”

NOTES: In addition to Davis-Ray, who was injured during winter workouts, the Black Bears are missing several other players because of injuries.

Defensive lineman Connor Walsh is recovering from labrum surgery.

Wide receiver Micah Wright, perhaps Maine’s most dynamic player, is still recovering from knee surgery last November. He will not compete in spring ball.

“We’ve got to take it easy with him,” said Harasymiak. “He wants to go, go, go.”

Defensive back Jeffrey DeVaughn was wearing a red “no-contact” jersey while recovering from shoulder surgery – he kept dislocating his shoulder last year. Defensive lineman Andrew Stevens was also wearing a red “no-contact” jersey as he recovers from hip surgery. He participated in drills.

Defensive back Darrius Hart is dealing with a hamstring injury but Harasymiak expects him back next week.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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