It is a given that college football teams change from one season to the next. It’s just a question of whether the change is for better or worse.

University of Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove already sees one positive difference between the start of this year and the Black Bears’ 2009 campaign, when they finished 5-6 and 4-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association.

“When we practiced (Sunday), we had everybody out there — some nicks, bruises, soreness and management-type things, but no outs and no limiteds,” Cosgrove said. “I’m knocking on wood as I say that, because last year at this time, we were without a number of guys going into our season.”

Among the missing last year were running back Jared Turcotte, who missed the entire season with a sports hernia suffered just before the preseason began. The former Fitzpatrick Trophy winner and All-American from Lewiston will be more than ready to go when Maine opens its 119th season Thursday night against Albany (7 p.m., Alfond Stadium).

“Turcotte is more than 100 percent,” Cosgrove said. “He’s probably got that ‘I missed playing last year’ mentality that jacks him up a little further, and that’s exciting because it radiates throughout his teammates.”

Maine is getting plenty of good, healthy vibrations, despite being ranked seventh in the CAA’s preseason poll. Senior linebacker Mark Masterson is also back after missing all but two games in 2009 with a foot injury. Quarterback Warren Smith has returned from a broken foot suffered late last season and has been given the starting nod after a tight preseason battle with former Portland High School star Chris Treister.

“The competition we had here was outstanding,” Cosgrove said. “It was really a tough call, two exceptional quarterbacks and leaders on our football team and it got down to some little things, just (Smith) playing a little bit better. It really was that close.”

Smith played in eight games last year, throwing for 1,695 yards with 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions to lead the top-ranked passing offense in the CAA.

Maine’s aerial production, however, came more out of necessity than design. Without Turcotte, who led the team in rushing in 2008, the Black Bears finished 11th in the 12-team conference in rushing. The hope is the return of Turcotte and a healthy Derek Session, a junior who led them in rushing last season with 519 yards, means the Bears can find a balance.

Cosgrove pointed out that Session hasn’t been healthy the last two seasons, and thinks he benefited after having shoulder and knee operations and sitting out December through spring practice to heal.

 “He’s really been impressive this preseason,” Cosgrove said.  “I know everybody is asking about Jared, but I point to ‘Sesh’ as really being almost a new guy out there for us.”

“When you have me and Derek on the field at the same time, either one of us could carry the ball, you don’t know,” Turcotte said. “We complement each other very well.”

Turcotte thinks the offense as a whole will be a lot less predictable this year.

“With the people we have on offense, the personnel and the things that we can do on the field, opponents just can’t call a defense to defend all the things that we can do,” he said. “Whatever the defense calls, I feel like there’s something that we can do as an offense that can expose the weakness of the defense.”

Pushaun Brown, Roosevelt Boone and Julian McCall give Maine depth and versatility in the backfield. They’ll allow Turcotte to line up at tailback in power formations and Session, a speedster who caught 23 passes last year, to split out in passing situations.

“We have five running backs all very capable of playing in this league,” Smith said. “We have downhill runners, we have flashy, outside runners, we have fast, strong shifty kind of guys. All of that is going to help our running game do different things, and with a great running game like that, it’s only going to help our passing game.”

The passing game suffered a significant loss with the graduation of Landis Williams, the CAA’s leading receiver. But the Bears still have senior Tyrell Jones, who was second on the team with 547 yards and six touchdowns last year,  as well as seniors Desmond Randall and Jeremy Kelley, sophomore Maurice McDonald, redshirt freshman Derrick Johnson and tight ends Derek Buttles and Jeff Falvey.

The offensive line returns nearly intact, with four of five starters back. Guard Matt Barber is the only senior. Brothers Matt and Josh Spearrin of Limington, both sophomores, lead a young nucleus that Cosgrove expects to improve dramatically.

“Last year we had a hard time getting five what I would call legitimate CAA starters on the field,” he said. “We were reaching. Not due to the fact that they didn’t have ability, but due to the fact that they were redshirt freshmen.”

Maine’s defense also had a lot of young players forced into action last year. Their growing pains could help the unit improve its No. 9 ranking in the conference last year.

“We have a lot of guys that have played a lot of football all across the defense, plenty of depth, plenty of experience,” Masterson said.

The Bears lost Temple’s Jordan Stevens, their top pass rusher, who is now in the UFL. Sophomore Kris Enslen takes his spot at defensive end. Kevin Phanor, Ryan Nani, Hofstra transfer Omar Jacobs and Raibonne Charles of Windham form the rest of the front wall.

Masterson and junior Donte Dennis, an all-CAA third team selection in 2009, and Vinson Givans lead the linebackers. Levi Ervin of Lisbon Falls will contribute in addition to being one of the leaders on special teams. Steven Barker, another all-CAA third-teamer, Trevor Coston and Jerron McMillian, form the core of the secondary.

Last season, the defense got better with more experience, but still struggled to close games out. Maine led nine of its 11 games at halftime in 2009 but couldn’t stop opponents’ momentum in the second half.

“We’re going to finish games,” Dennis said. “We didn’t finish a lot of games last year, so this year we’ve emphasized finishing games. We’ve got to be tough, because that’s how defense wins championships.”

Cosgrove showed little confidence in Maine’s kicking game last year, attempting just 12 field goals (converting nine). Jordan Waxman, who went 8-for-10 in field goals in nine games before getting injured, and Brian Harvey, who missed all of last season with an injury, were battling for the placekicking duties in preseason.  Chris Gennaro of Saco will handle the punting.


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