ORONO — When outsiders talk about this year’s University of Maine football team, the conversation invariably begins with the defense – and how good it can be. After Monday afternoon’s intrasquad scrimmage at Alfond Stadium, it’s easy to see why.

The defense, nicknamed “The Black Hole,” was dominating at times when the first units were on the field. The defensive backs blanketed wide receivers and batted down balls. The front seven swarmed everyone.

Yes there were the occasional breakdowns, such as redshirt freshman Ramon Jefferson’s jaw-dropping 39-yard run in which he spun away from not one, but two would-be tacklers, but overall it was an impressive performance by the defense.

“I liked what I saw,” said linebacker Jaron Grayer, who led the Black Bears with 79 tackles last year as a freshman. “That front seven we’ve got going on right now, we got our first starts under our belts last season and we’re coming back and we’ve gotten better and we’re meshing together. We’re playing as a unit. And our secondary is playing well together. As a unit, our defense should be very strong.”

The defense, ranked sixth of 12 teams in the Colonial Athletic Association last year in total defense (332.7 yards), returns eight starters but is still considered young. Linebacker Sterling Sheffield is the only senior among the front seven. Grayer is a sophomore, as is fellow linebacker Deshawn Stevens. Linebacker Taji Lowe is a junior, as are defensive linemen Kayon Whitaker, Charles Mitchell and Alejandro Oregon.

Many of them saw their first extended playing time last year. And Joe Harasymiak, in his third year as UMaine’s head coach, said that experience is invaluable.

“Experience is huge, I talk about that a lot,” he said. “I think CAA experience, since we are the best conference in the country, means a lot. There’s a lot of talent in this league, so when our guys go through that, when they grind through that for a year and get experience, it’s huge coming back.

“And I think you’re seeing that. You’re seeing guys that have played together, jell together. Checks are coming faster, those kinds of things. And you’re seeing that in camp.”

And for the first time in a couple of years, there are going to be some familiar numbers – 5 and 9 – on the defensive line.

Whitaker, who was a first-team all-CAA preseason selection this year, was presented with the No. 9 jersey. That jersey is presented to the player generally considered UMaine’s toughest defender. You have to earn the right to wear it, as the number is passed down by its previous owner.

It was absent last year because Uchenna Egwuonwu (who was presented it by Darius Greene) was suspended by the university in preseason and never played. So Harasymiak called Greene, who suggested it go to Whitaker, who was second on the team with 65 tackles and led Maine with 8.5 sacks.

Mitchell, meanwhile, was given the No. 5, which was previously worn by Pat Ricard, now in his second year as a two-way player for the Baltimore Ravens. And, coincidentally, Mitchell lined up as fullback in a goal-line situation in Monday’s scrimmage, just as Ricard, a defensive lineman, does for the Ravens.

“Coach asked me in the spring if I had good hands,” said Mitchell, who scored Monday in a goal-line plunge. “I said I did.”

Ricard and Greene were dominant players for Maine. Mitchell (6-foot-1, 255 pounds) and Whitaker (6-3, 235) hope to repeat their success.

“We’ve been lining up next to each other since our freshman year,” said Mitchell. “It’s something we always dreamed about, talking in our dorms. It’s great to see it happen for both of us.”

“We came in together, it’s like having another brother,” said Whitaker. “I know he’s going to do his job and dominate at his job so we just try to lead as best we can.”

The two players know what it means to wear those numbers.

“No. 9 is a tradition here,” said Whitaker. “I feel there’s a lot of weight on my shoulders to lead and carry the team in a certain way. And No. 5, it’s got that reputation too.”

And the defense has a reputation to uphold too. Mitchell is ready for the challenge.

“I feel we’re the best in the country,” he said. “It’s a mentality we have, just being tough all the way around. We want every opponent we play to be afraid of us, to not want to play us.”


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