Maine tight end Drew Belcher celebrates a first down against New Hampshire during the season opener in August in Orono. (Portland Press Herald photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette)

ORONO — In Joe Harasymiak’s first season as Maine’s head football coach, tight ends were an afterthought. Three players combined to catch four passes for a paltry 21 yards in 2016.

That’s no longer the case.

With erstwhile quarterback Drew Belcher leading the way, the tight end position has become an intergral part of the offense for Maine, which takes its 10-3 record into Saturday’s NCAA Football Championship Subdivision semifinal at Eastern Washington University.

This season, Belcher and senior Julian Dunn have combined for 50 catches for 422 yards, with Belcher getting the majority of those throws. He’s third on the team with 43 receptions for 333 yards. They’ve accounted for 21.2 percent of Maine’s completions this season — a huge change since 2016 (2.4 percent) and a signficant increase since last season when the tight ends’ 24 catches were 13 percent of Maine’s completions.

“I just think Coach Nick (Charlton, Maine’s offensive coordinator) has done a really good job of incorporating everyone into the offense,” Belcher said. “Overall, we’ve done a bunch of different things, multiple looks, multiple set, so that’s kind of how we’ve gotten involved.”

The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Belcher was recruited out of Reading, Massachusetts, as a quarterback and started five games as a true freshman and four the following season. He redshirted in 2016 after Dan Collins was chosen as the starting quarterback. When Belcher was again beaten out at qurterback in the 2017 preseason by Chris Ferguson, he was asked to switch positions.

The position switch paid off for Maine.

It may also help Belcher, a fifth-year senior with the tools to try to follow former Maine tight ends Matthew Mulligan and Justin Perillo into the NFL. Current Houston Texans General Manager Brian Gaine, who spent three seasons on NFL practice squads in the 1990s, is another former UMaine tight end.

“We think Drew is the best tight end in our league, and he’s showing that and making plays in big games outside of our conference,” Charlton said. “We think he’s a professional potential-type guy.”

Belcher had 17 catches last season for 233 yards and two scores. This year he’s been able to merge his ability to read defenses like a quarterback with a more physical approach.

“It’s been just getting used to the position, used to running routes, definitely,” he said.

Belcher’s lone touchdown catch came in the first-round playoff win against Jacksonville State. Belcher had a team-high five catches in last week’s quarterfinal win at Weber State. Belcher’s versatility has been a plus in the offense. He has rushed for one touchdown and is 4-for-4 passing, with two touchdown passes, one going to Dunn in the 28-9 win over Albany.

Dunn, a 6-2, 239-pound senior from Sandy Hook, Connecticut, has seven catches for 89 yards and a score. While less frequent, his catches seem to come at opportune moments, including a 20-yarder early in the Jacksonville State game as part of the Black Bears’ second touchdown drive.

“I joke around and call him big-play Julian,” Charlton said. “I know he doesn’t have a ton of catches but he does a lot of things in our offense that goes kind of understated. He’s played a lot of football for us this year.”

Every tight end is expected to block. Often, Belcher and Dunn are working together on tandem blocks on the perimeter.

“I think we’re both pretty smart players and a lot of our blocks are comboed together,” Belcher said. “Knowing where he’s going to go and trusting where he’s going to go helps out. We often work together.”

Against Eastern Washington, Maine’s tight ends will face a base defense that features four defensive backs in press coverage. Since most of the focus will be on explosive wideouts like Earnest Edwards, Micah Wright and Old Town native Andre Miller, the tight ends will be looking to exploit the middle of the field.

“Especially when they’re in their four-press, they’re manned up on the corners so we’ll have some linbackers and safeties underneath so we just have to pry ourselves open,” Belcher said.

Do that often enough, and the tight ends could get one more game to play after Saturday, one more chance to improve on their successful seasons.

“I thnk it’s an unreal opportunity,” Dunn said. “I just think the mindest that is different from any other team we’ve had is that we’re not going to lose. We have that mindset that we’re going to win. That’s just the kind of players we have on this team.”

Maine tight end Drew Belcher runs with the ball against Elon last month in Orono. (Portland Press Herald photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette)


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