You take a defending conference champion, bring back more than half its starters, replenish the roster with talent from an undefeated junior varsity squad, and what do you get?

In Mt. Blue’s case, apparently, an underdog.

“We don’t have as much depth as last year,” coach Gary Parlin said. “And Bangor and Lawrence are loaded.”

Oh sure, the Cougars have some question marks as they begin defense of the Pine Tree Conference title. but they’re not alone.

Junior Joe Gilbert takes over the controls of the storied Cougar Gun and has impressed in preseason with his ability to throw the ball deep. An outstanding receiving corps led by seniors Art Trask, Curtis Steele and all-around threat Hal Robbins will help him stretch opposing defenses and open gaping holes for senior running back Mike Toothaker, who tallied more than 1,000 yards last year.

Whether it moves the ball on the ground inside or outside or throws it short or deep, Parlin’s offense will run the gamut. So will his rebuilt offensive line, which features 6-5, 284 pound tackle Eric Gilbert and and 5-8, 158 pound center Tim Lagasse.

“On offense, it’s comes down to how our offensive line comes together,” Parlin said.

Parlin has some concerns about his defensive line, too, but no worries about his linebackers, led by Alex Johnson and Justin Lowe, who set a school record for tackles last year.

Parlin’s praise for Bangor and Lawrence may be a bit overstated, but both teams are returning a lot of talent and experience. The Rams hope to bounce back from a rare playoff hiatus with a big, veteran offensive line protecting QB Ian Edwards. Lawrence needs to fill some holes on its offensive line, but the backfield of QB Aaron Champagne and running backs Cory Church and David Wallace is one of the best in the conference.

Lewiston will state its case for having the best backfield in the PTC, and the return of Fitzpatrick Trophy contender Jared Turcotte gives them a compelling counterpoint. The senior tailback collected more than 1,900 yards and 21 touchdowns in eight games last year. The Blue Devils hope to exceed that production while lightening Turcotte’s workload with a new offense designed by new offensive coordinator and former Brunswick head coach Dick Leavitt.

The Blue Devils need their revamped offensive line to gel, but opponents expecting Turcotte to be a one-man show are in for a surprise. Junior QB Mason Giroux and wideouts Alfonso Brooks, Josh Leger and Nick Blais give them a dimension they lacked last year, a viable passing game, and Giroux can also make plays when he keeps the ball. Running backs Matt Letourneau, Ryan Lagasse and Westley Myers will provide a change of pace and help keep the Devils’ No. 1 back from wearing down.

“Basically, what we’ve done is kept some of the things that we liked about our old offense and implemented a few things that we hope are going to make us more diverse,” said coach Bill County. “Besides Jared, there are several other players that we think are going to be able to balance out the offense for us.”

Turcotte will be in the middle of the defense, too, literally, moving from safety to middle linebacker. In contrast to recent history, the Devils’ strength on that side of the ball will be in the secondary.

Former Lewiston coach Darren Hartley moved across the river in July and has had to move quickly to get to know his Edward Little players and assistant coaches. Hartley replaces Jim Hersom and credits carryovers from Hersom’s staff such as Don Morency, Dave Sterling and Craig Jipson with helping the quick transition.

“It has been very, very seamless. I’ve been very, very lucky,” he said. “The kids are learning a new system, but we tried to make it as simple as we could. We have a huge senior class and a huge sophomore class, and that transition from older guys to younger guys has been great.”

Also helping with that transition has been senior quarterback Troy Barnies. The 6-foot-7 signal caller came into his own last year and “will be the best athlete on the field in a lot of our games. He’s a great leader, very smart,” Hartley said.

Barnies will lead a backfield with lots of speed and depth. Senior tailback Jon Demers has been banged up in preseason, but should be ready to go next week, Hartley said. Senior Chris Ringer and sophomore Buddy Foss have filled in well in his stead and should help Demers carry the load, along with Dyle Therien and fullbacks Rick Chamness and Kyle Bussiere. Twin senior wideouts Josh and Joe Martin, David Brown and Matt Richardson will handle pass-catching duties. The offensive line, led by tackle Scott Daigle, is small but physical.

A few of the PTC’s playoff regulars, Oxford Hills, Skowhegan and Brunswick, are facing rebuilding years, but still could reach the post-season if they can hold off some up-and-coming teams such as Cony, Mt. Ararat and Messalonskee.

The Vikings are solid up front with two-time all-conference lineman Ron Packard, and boast perhaps the top pass-catching threat in the conference in senior split end Ethan Sutton.

“Our offensive and defensive lines will be our strength,” coach Bob Austin said. “But we’re going to need to block people up front to do well.”

For the last three years, the Vikings had 2005 Ray Caldwell Award winner Jim Bower as a big-play threat in the backfield, but the tailback spot remains unsettled in preseason. Junior Justin Frechette takes the reins from Ben Ryerson at QB.

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