ORONO — Sterling Sheffield has been dwelling on his senior season for a long time. Probably since Nov. 18, the day the 2017 season ended for the University of Maine football team.

Sheffield was named as a second-team all-Colonial Athletic Conference selection last year as a junior – but felt he could have played much better.

“Yeah, this is a big year for me,” Sheffield said after a preseason practice in August. “I started pressuring myself last year and saw a loss of production, and my play went down. I need to approach each game the same this year; no opponent is greater than another.

“I need to be able to have a good year, not think too much. The less I think, the more plays I’ll make.”

Well, he’s making plays – and big ones – as the Black Bears have started the season with a surprising 2-0 record, with wins over rival New Hampshire (first since 2010) and Western Kentucky (first win over a Football Bowl Subdivision team since 2013). Maine had a bye this week and plays at Central Michigan on Saturday.

As a team, Maine’s “Black Hole” defense leads the nation in rush defense (13.5 yards per game) and sacks (6.0 per game), and is ranked in the top 20 in five other defensive categories. Sheffield, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound linebacker from Mullica Hill, New Jersey, is ranked third in the nation with 3.5 sacks and tied for 12th with 4.5 tackles for a loss.

“I have never seen the man play like this, ever,” said senior safety Jeff DeVaughn. “I’m behind him and just watching him on every play is amazing. The guy is relentless. He never gives up. He’s just an animal. I know I wouldn’t want to go against him. He’s playing at a very high level, which is something we need for this defense.”

Sheffield just shrugs when his performance is brought up. “The good thing is my teammates are making life easy for me,” he said, crediting the defensive linemen for clearing a path for him to make his tackles.

“But I have definitely slowed the game down this year and stopped putting pressure on myself. Even if I miss a tackle, I don’t harp on it. Last year I would be thinking about it. So that’s definitely different from last year.”

The pressure Sheffield felt as a junior was understandable. He played as a freshman and had a stellar sophomore season, with 65 tackles, five sacks and 11 tackles for a loss.

Then Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga, a linebacker who mentored Sheffield, gave him the No. 6 jersey that he had worn. Mulumba-Tshimanga now plays for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.

“I didn’t want to let anybody down,” said Sheffield. While his stats were still impressive – 64 tackles. 5.5 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss – Sheffield felt he didn’t make enough plays for the defense in Maine’s 4-6 season. So he worked harder than he ever had in the offseason. And the results are eye-opening.

Against New Hampshire he had 10-yard sacks on the Wildcats’ first two possessions to stop both drives as Maine ended an eight-game losing streak to New Hampshire with a 35-7 victory.

Sheffield, 21, is second on the team with 16 tackles behind sophomore linebacker Deshawn Stevens (17).

“I think he’s more relaxed, letting the game come to him,” said Joe Harasymiak, in his third season as Maine’s head coach. “Someone with his talent and ability … if he felt he pressed too much (as a junior), he doesn’t need to. He’s a good player.”

Sheffield, who lost a front tooth during Maine’s win at Western Kentucky, has been making big plays since his freshman year. While many of his classmates were redshirted, Harasymiak and then-head coach Jack Cosgrove wanted him on the field. And in the fourth quarter of a close game with Stony Brook, Sheffield had a sack and forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Trevor Bates.

“We’ve always seen his explosiveness,” said Harasymiak. “His ability to rush the passer is huge for us right now.”

Sheffield’s versatility is also a big part of Maine’s defense. Already this year, Sheffield has played the field at outside linebacker (lining up on the wide side of the field), boundary (short side) outside linebacker, inside linebacker and defensive end.

“We’ve moved him around and put a lot of stuff on him,” said defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman. “He’s done a really good job this year doing what we’ve asked and staying within the game plan, staying within his responsibilities.”

Both Harasymiak and Hetherman said Sheffield is a great role model. “He’s probably our best guy at setting an example by the way he plays,” said Harasymiak. “If you’re a younger guy and you watch him, the way he practices and plays, it’s everything you want to do.”

Stevens said Sheffield has taught him “to enjoy the game, to be positive, to have a good attitude out there, to enjoy your teammates and to do your best out there. And he’s taught me how to be a good person. He tries to do the right thing and I appreciate that.”

His teammates also appreciate his personality, which according to many of them, keeps them loose. “He’s just a funny guy,” said DeVaughn.

“He is a goofball,” said offensive coordinator Nick Charlton, who coached Sheffield on special teams. “He’s a happy-go-lucky, fun kid. He likes to have fun but takes it seriously, too. And he’s smiling all the time.”

“I love having a good time,” said Sheffield, who is set to graduate in May with a degree in marketing. “As long as you’re having fun, whether in your job or class or whatever, then time flies and you’re able to enjoy it more. It’s my personality, same as my mom. We’re both goofballs. But we still gain respect with what we do, me on the field and her in her job.”

His mom, Judy Sheffield, is a senior district manager for a pharmaceutical company, Otsuka America.

For now he knows there’s a lot of work to be done.

“I’m excited to see how the rest of the season goes,” said Sheffield. “Our hard work has paid off now, but we’ve got to be able to grow and progress each week.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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