Quarterback Joe Fagnano started the final six games of UMaine’s 2019 season, throwing for 17 touchdowns and 1,835 yards. Peter Buehner photo

Every season opener carries uncertainty: new season, new team.

But when the University of Maine football team plays at Delaware at noon Saturday in the opening game of the Colonial Athletic Association’s spring season, it will have a decidedly new look.

Only four defensive starters return from Maine’s last game – a 28-10 loss to New Hampshire on Nov. 23, 2019 – and just five are back on offense, including sophomore quarterback Joe Fagnano.

Since then, Coach Nick Charlton has crafted a roster filled out with freshmen and transfers, many of whom will be factors during this six-game spring season. After having the 2020 fall season canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, all the newcomers have had nearly a year to become acclimated to the Black Bears’ system.

“I expect it to be an all-hands-on-deck operation,” said Charlton in a Zoom conference call on Wednesday. “Everyone has to be ready to play.”

Three players who transferred in this year will be in the starting lineup: junior strong safety Fofie Bazzie (Maryland), grad student nose tackle Austin Chambers (Brigham Young) and sophomore running back Elijah Barnwell (Rutgers). Jonny Messina, a graduate transfer from Stetson, will be the kicker.

They fill voids left by transfers (kicker Kenny Doak), graduation (nose tackle Charles Mitchell) or opt outs (safety Katley Joseph).

“We wanted to build our depth,” said Charlton. “Some of it had to do with the spring season, but we always want to improve our depth, so we took a few more (transfers) than we have in the past. We’re still going to be a program that takes freshmen and develops guys and we want to do it that way. But the (transfer) portal will definitely be part of our recruiting.”

The offense should be dangerous again, with Fagnano and wide receiver Andre Miller returning and a line that features three returning starters – center Michael Gerace and the left side of guard Matthias Staalsoe and Tyler Royal. Senior right tackle Gunnar Ducos, a former Oxford Hills High standout who started 13 games as a sophomore, is also back. Maine averaged 29.3 points per game in 2019, with a CAA-best 296.5 passing yards.

But this team could be more balanced. The addition of Barnwell (whom the Black Bears recruited heavily before he went to Rutgers) and freshmen Freddie Brock and Tavion Banks, combined with redshirt freshman Curtis Murray, could give Maine a more dynamic running game.

“They bring a whole different dynamic to the offense,” said Miller, an Old Town native who had 44 catches for 816 yards and five touchdowns in 2019. “It is refreshing to see new young guys coming in.”

Fagnano started the final six games of 2019 after taking over for an injured Chris Ferguson and threw for 17 touchdowns and 1,835 yards. Miller figures to be his best deep threat. Junior Jacob Hennie (seven catches for 75 yards) and sophomore tight end Shawn Bowman (22 catches, 219 yards) are the other top receivers back. Freshmen Trevin Ewing and Montigo Moss (son of former NFL star Randy Moss) also could get plenty of looks.

“We have some big roles to fill,” said Miller. “But we’ve got great players who are able to step up and play those roles. It’s a matter of making the plays when the opportunity comes.”

Charlton hopes they catch on early.

“If you look at the last couple of years, we didn’t find our identity until halfway though the  year,” he said. “You would see that stuff develop. Naturally, in a shortened season, you want to see that develop right away.”

Maine’s defense is traditionally one of the stingiest in the CAA. But there is much uncertainty this spring. Junior Jamehl Wiley is the only returning starting lineman. And only safety Richard Carr returns in the secondary. If there’s a strength to the defense, it should be the linebackers.

Junior Adrian Otero returns as a starter, while junior Ori Jean-Charles and sophomore Myles Taylor share the rover position. They’re joined by senior Deshawn Stevens in the middle, perhaps the biggest addition to this team at any position.

Stevens was Maine’s leading defender entering the 2019 season, but ruptured the Achilles tendon in his right leg early in the second quarter of the season opener.

“He motivates the offense, he motivates the defense,” said Charlton. “There’s not much more of a presence on this team than Deshawn Stevens.”

Stevens is excited to be back. “This is my game,” he said. “This is something I’ve loved every single day since I was a kid.”

Asked about the defense, Stevens proceeded to list the starters and talk about their development.

“We understand the level of that bar that’s been set for us,” he said. “It’s always on us, on our side of the ball, to do what we’ve got to do as a team. And the more confident we get on our side, the more confident the offense gets.”

Defensive coordinator Mike Ryan has the same high hopes, knowing the young players have to develop quickly.

“It’s an experience thing,” said Ryan. “I think we’re really talented. How quickly we mature to the level needed to handle the ins and outs of this league every week will be a factor. We’re excited to see how they react.”

NOTES: In addition to Joseph, wide receiver Devin Young and defensive back Erick Robertson have opted out of the spring season because of coronavirus concerns. In addition, cornerback Shaquille St. Lot is recovering from a knee injury and will not play this spring. All are expected back for the fall season. … Michael Laverriere (of Saco and Thornton Academy), Jaron Grayer and Skylar Bowman are out with medical DQs, meaning, according to Charlton, that “they couldn’t continue playing due to injury but are still on scholarship.” … UMaine and Black Bear Sports Properties announced that all three home games will be televised. Locally, the games will be seen on WPXT in Portland.

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