ORONO —The University of Maine opens its 118th football season Thursday night against St. Cloud State (7 p.m., Alfond Stadium) with one thing in mind.

“This year we expect to go out and win every game, no matter who we’re playing,” sophomore running back Jared Turcotte of Lewiston said. “There will be more of a winning mentality. Anything but winning will be unacceptable.”

That would be the expected approach facing a Division II school from Minnesota. But after getting a taste of the playoffs last year, the Black Bears are aiming for bigger and better things in 2009, even with a schedule that includes a trip to Division I Syracuse on Sep. 26 and four other teams ranked in the FCS Coaches Preseason Top 25 Poll.

For the first time since 2004, Maine enters the season nationally ranked (19th). The Black Bears were picked to finish third in the Colonial Athletic Conference North Division.

Turcotte was among the individual Black Bears to earn preseason honors. He was named a preseason All-American after a breakout freshman campaign where he led Maine in rushing and receptions.

“He’s such a versatile player. We can put him anywhere,” senior quarterback Mike Brusko said.
“I think that’s what makes him so valuable. I think his role is just
going to continue to grow and grow and grow.” 

Turcotte will miss Thursday’s game with a strained groin muscle that has kept him out of preseason scrimmages. The hope is he will be ready for the Bears’ Sept. 12 CAA opener at Northeastern. His absence gives coach Jack Cosgrove a chance to show off his backfield depth, with sophomore tailbacks Roosevelt Boone, Pushaun Brown and Derek Session available to pick up the slack.

A lot of names are in the mix at running back, but Maine goes into the season with only one name in the quarterback discussion for the first time in a while. Senior tri-captain Mike Brusko is the clear starter this year after splitting the job the last couple of seasons and playing other roles on the team.

“It’s nice to be able to focus on one position,” said Brusko, who saw time at wide receiver and punter and on special teams coverage before taking over quarterback duties from an injured Adam Farkes on Oct. 11. “But I don’t ever want to let myself be satisfied and just feel like I’m the quarterback, I don’t have to compete anymore. My mindset walking onto the field every day is I need to play as well as I can, play to the highest level of my ability and to lead.”

Brusko completed 64.4 percent of his passes while throwing for 936 yards and eight touchdowns last season. 

“I thought what he did last year was very impressive, from having an undefined multiple role to becoming the quarterback and leader of our team and taking us to six straight wins,” Cosgrove said. “His great ability as a leader and manager of a game were probably his greatest strengths. His poise in tough situations, his ability to make plays as a run and pass option guy so many times got us into the end zone or made the play that got us the field goal that we needed. Now, he’s obviously not in the same situation. He’s the guy.'”

Perhaps the most likely wide receiver to emerge as “the guy” for Brusko is senior Landis Williams, who caught 22 passes for 308 yards and five touchdowns as a junior. Junior wideout Tyrell Jones and sophomore tight end Derek Buttles.

The offensive line returns three starters — senior tackle Tyler Eastman of Old Town, junior guard Matt Barber and sophomore Steve Shea of Corinna. Shea could be moved to center, where redshirt freshman Garret Williamson is also in the mix. Junior Alex Batanian will line up on the opposite end of Eastman at the other tackle spot and redshirt freshman Chris Howley is expected to step in at the other guard.

A number of people will be stepping in for Maine’s defense, known as “The Black Hole,” including new defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, who spent the past two seasons as defensive back coach and special teams coordinator. Just four starters return, including senior defensive end Jordan Stevens of Temple.

“‘The Black Hole,’ is one of the identities of Maine and being one of the top defenses is the goal,” said Stevens, a tri-captain. “For us to be successful, we do have to have a good defense, one that can shut down the run and make teams one-dimensional.”

The Black Bears aren’t too worried about the defense taking too long to jell because several of the new starters saw plenty of time on the field last season. 

“There are guys that know the difference in the success that we had in
’08 versus the lack of success that we had in ’07,” Cosgrove said. “I
think there’s always going to be a lineage on our defense now that
we’ve got that ‘Black Hole’ name and there are guys waiting in line for
their turn to be a member.”

“Everyone’s going to do their 1/11th. We’re going to get to the ball, we’re going to pursue, and we’re going to be enthusiastic the whole season,” said senior linebacker Brandon McLaughlin, the other tri-captain. “The philosophy is simple — it’s 100 percent effort and follow your assignments.”

Stevens, McLaughlin, senior linebacker Mark Masterson and sophomore defensive tackle Raibonne Charles of Windham are the returning starters. Senior Eric Lee (tackle), sophomore Kevin Phanor (nose tackle) and redshirt freshmen Chris Alston and Kris Enslen (end) will join Stevens on the line. Sophomore Donte Dennis will likely inherit the third linebacker spot, although Ryan McCrossan and Levi Ervin of Lisbon Falls figure to see time there as well.

The secondary is young but talented, led by sophomore safeties Jerron McMillian and Trevor Coston. Troy Harris, the lone senior and a special teams veteran, gets the nod at one cornerback along with junior Steven Barker. Coston and Barker missed the 2008 season due to injuries.

Five kickers were in training camp competing for the placekicking and punting duties, including Brian Harvey and Jordan Waxman, who handled most of the field goals and extra points last season.

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