ORONO — With 10 of the 11 starters returning from last November’s final game, the defense figures to be one of the Unversity of Maine’s strengths heading into the 2018 football season.

And Saturday’s first spring scrimmage gave a glimpse why the Black Hole – as the defense is called – might live up to its name again.

The defense controlled the scrimmage early, forcing punts on the first three series, and displayed a cohesion bonded by the familiarity of playing together.

“I feel the chemistry is there,” said cornerback Manny Patterson, who will be a junior in the fall. “I feel it on the field. Every rep we’re talking, communicating, getting our assignments. It’s a lot easier to trust the man next to you when you know he’s going to do his job because you’ve been playing with him.”

Patterson will be joined at cornerback by Joshua Huffman, who will be a senior in the fall. Huffman established himself after stepping up last year when Najee Goode suffered injuries. Patterson looked very good in the scrimmage, twice batting down passes from Chris Ferguson in the end zone.

“The trust is going to be there,” said Huffman. “We’re going to be in a groove. We’re going to be Black Hole.”

Maine, extremely young last year in the front seven, was a middle-of-the-pack defense in the tough Colonial Athletic Association. Sterling Sheffield, a senior linebacker next fall, said it’s time for the Black Bears to step up. Young players, such as linemen Kayon Whitaker, Charles Mitchell and Alejandro Oregon (all sophomores last fall), and linebackers Deshawn Stevens and Jaron Grayer (who both started as redshirt freshmen a year ago) are back, bigger and stronger.

And they’re being pushed by more young players, such as Jamehl Wiley, who missed his freshman season last fall because of a knee injury. He was a disruptive force in the scrimmage, continually pressuring the quarterback.

“He was around the quarterback a lot today,” said Coach Joe Harasymiak, entering his third season. “He’s probably mad at me that I didn’t call them all sacks.”

Wiley said he watched the Black Bears grow last year and learned one very valuable lesson: “Just have fun. Don’t overthink, just go out there and have fun.”

Sheffield knows this defense can be very good. Maine finished 4-6 last year, losing several close games in the final minutes. Maine was ranked sixth in total defense (332.7 yards per game) in the 12-team CAA, eighth in points allowed (23.3) and last in red zone defense (84.6 percent, as opponents scored on 22 of 26 trips inside the 20).

“We were a young developing team,” said Sheffield, of last year. “Now we have to take the next step, be in the top of the conference, not just in the middle. We have a lot of leadership coming back this year.”

Like Sheffield, Harasymiak wants to see the defense grow even more this year.

“No doubt about it, there’s something to be said by the experience we gained last year,” said Harasymiak. “I think the thing that got us last year all over the place was the critical situations. To have those guys back, there should be a progression.

“I think they were in position to make plays last year and they made some. But the great defenses will make those at a higher rate … Certainly the expectations for that crew are really high.”

Maine’s offense rebounded later in the scrimmage, putting together a couple of drives that ended up in field goals by Kenny Doak. It added touchdowns on two red-zone drives (a Ferguson to Earnest Edwards pass – where Edwards spun out of two tackles – and a short run by Joe Fitzpatrick of North Yarmouth and Cheverus High) and a two-minute drill (a 28-yard run by Ramon Jefferson, who burst through the line, then shifted into a higher gear).

Ferguson said Maine’s offense is definitely learning from its defense.

“It really helps me a lot,” he said. “Talking to those guys after practice. “‘Hey what did you do here?’ or ‘What did you see me do here?’ It helps me get in the defense’s mind a little bit.”

NOTES: Jamil Demby, the former Black Bear offensive lineman, watched from the sidelines. Demby could be selected this week in the NFL draft. He said he plans to fly home Friday to Vineland, New Jersey, for the final four rounds Saturday. “I’ll be with family, friends, everybody who supported me through the years,” he said. In the last two weeks, Demby said he had visits with New Orleans, Miami, the Rams and the Jets. He also had workouts with Tennessee, Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston and Baltimore.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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