ORONO — Levi Ervin never saw the hit coming.

A knee to the back of the head sent the University of Maine linebacker and special teams maven into an unconscious lurch. Like a prize fighter, he ultimately collapsed and hit his head on the Carrier Dome turf, which knocked him out again.

Ervin’s teammates carried him off the field. He remembers little about the rest of the game.

“It was scary watching it on film. It was scary to listen to the guys talk about it, because I have no idea. There’s bits and pieces of that game that I remember, but there’s a lot of it that I don’t,” Ervin said. “Even the week after, two weeks after, things were still fuzzy. I might not have remembered something you told me five minutes ago.”

Diagnosed with a concussion, Ervin returned three weeks later to a depleted linebacking corps and drew the starting nod against Richmond. He had  one of his best games with seven tackles (five solo, two assists). In seven games, he made 21 tackles (13 solo, 8 assists) and recovered a fumble.

Injuries thrust Ervin into more consistent playing time at linebacker, a position to which he had converted after starting his career at UMaine as a safety. But special teams is where the former Lisbon star has made a reputation for himself.

“That’s where I make my money, right there,” he said.

Ervin, who is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, has the perfect body-type and mentality for special teams, according to Maine special teams coordinator Kevin Cahill. He has the size and speed to not only chase down returners, but punish them when he has them in the cross-hairs.

“When we kick it, we kick it to Levi’s side,” Cahill said. “His job is to get through, get down there and tackle the returner.”

Cahill considers Ervin the bellwether of the special teams unit, and Ervin relishes the virtual car collisions that are a part of every play.

“It’s full speed,” Ervin said. “You’ve just got to run down and nail somebody every play. It’s good because I’m always where the kicker is going to be, so I’m right in the mix.”

“He’s a guy that has taken his role to the extreme,” Cahill said. “As long as his health continues, he’s going to be starting on five of our six special teams. On the top four, the punt and punt return teams and the kickoff and kickoff return teams, he’s our main guy.”

“I rely big-time on him,” Cahill added. “I’ll throw questions at him, and he always wants more, more, more, more. I can kind of judge our special teams off of what Levi suggests and what he thinks.”

The violent nature of special teams puts Ervin at greater risk of suffering another head injury, something Ervin is well aware, but undeterred.

“Head injuries are a very, very serious thing, but I’m not scared of it,” he said. “You can’t think of something like that happening again, because if you do, you’re not going to be able to play as fast or as good as you want to.”

One thing that is helping put Ervin’s mind at ease this year is a new helmet that both he and senior cornerback Dom Cusano, who also suffered a concussion last season, will be wearing this year.

The helmet, known as the Xenith X1, developed by a former quarterback from Harvard, costs $400, about double a regular helmet. It doesn’t have any air bladders or foam as most helmets do. Instead, rubber suction cups cling to the head. Attached to a bonnet inside the shell of the helmet, they act like shock absorbers and release air upon impact. They compress more completely than foam to minimize the force of impact.

“He had the whole spring to work with it and he’s really feeling confident and comfortable in it,” Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove said.

“We cinch them up tight and it keeps our head from moving around in our helmet. They help a lot,” Ervin said. “With that, I’m not nervous at all. I don’t get headaches after hitting somebody too hard. I really feel confident with it. I can just do out and play as fast as I want and don’t have to worry about a head injury.”

With senior Mark Masterson back from an injury to lead the linebackers, Ervin is currently listed as a backup on the depth chart and has been working at the middle, or “mike”  and strong-side, or “backer” positions in preseason.

He will most likely get his opportunity on defense. When he does, he’ll bring the same fearlessness and knowledge Cahill values on special teams. Donte Dennis, another senior linebacker, called Ervin “the computer of the defense.”

“Levi knows everything,” Dennis said. “He’s excited every day. We feed off of his energy and he feeds off ours.”

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