University of Maine football Coach Nick Charlton: “I’m proud of how resilient this team was. We finished the season the right way and we have a lot of momentum going forward.” Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The 2021 football season didn’t start well for the University of Maine.

The Black Bears lost four of their first five games, and didn’t look good doing it. The defense was getting rolled over and the offense couldn’t get the ball to its playmakers.

And then things changed. The defense became a force again. The offense clicked. And Maine won five of its last six games, finishing with a winning record at 6-5, 4-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Black Bears won their fourth game ever against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent with a 35-10 decision against Massachusetts and and then defeated rival New Hampshire on the road for the first time in 20 years with a 33-20 victory in the season finale.

Now the Black Bears step into the offseason with a better outlook.

“I’m proud of how resilient this team was,” said head coach Nick Charlton, whose career record improved to 14-13. “We finished the season the right way and we have a lot of momentum going forward.”

The Black Bears return at least eight starters on both offense and defense, a number that could change if seniors such as center Michael Gerace, linebacker Adrian Otero, cornerback Richard Carr, safety Fofie Bazzie and wide receiver Zavier Scott return for a fifth year that was granted by the NCAA for the lost COVID-19 2020 fall season.

“Adrian is coming back,” said Charlton. “A couple of other situations are in flux.”

In addition, offensive lineman Tyler Royal, who has 11 career starts but missed the season with a knee injury, will return.

“Everybody is excited to get back to work,” said junior quarterback Joe Fagnano, who missed seven starts this year with a leg injury suffered in the second game of the season at James Madison. “Every time we go to work out, go into the locker room, we see that musket hanging there. And that’s much more incentive to go out there and work hard because we know we have something to defend.

Quarterback Joe Fagnano missed seven starts this fall, but returned to lead the University of Maine in the final two games of the season, road wins at Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Ronald Gillis photo

“We think we can win any game in the (Colonial Athletic Association). And we want to make the playoffs.”

But much can happen before offseason training begins. The NCAA transfer portal is open and already players are moving. According to the Twitter account NCAA Transfer Portal, 77 players had entered the portal as of mid-afternoon Monday. Given the number of tweets appearing on that feed Tuesday, that number has grown considerably.

“This week is going to be a busy week for that,” said Charlton.

Charlton expects to lose some players to transfer. He also expects to gain some. Since the spring of 2019, Maine has added 19 transfers or grad transfers to its roster. This year, linebacker Ray Miller (Campbell University) led Maine with 103 tackles and Bazzie (Maryland) was second with 64. Offensively, guard P.J. Barr (Bucknell) was an anchor on the line.

“We will be recruiting in the portal, as we have the last year-and-a-half,” said Charlton. “It’s worked well for us.”

Charlton said he and his coaches have already have conversations about the portal with their players.

“We plan on bringing the majority of our guys back,” he said. “I have a good idea (who will be transferring) based on the conversations we’ve had. These conversations are transparent. Some just need to move on. It’s how college football is now. We try to be forward thinking about it. We try to be proactive without overusing it. That’s not good for the program, especially at UMaine.

“We’re the farthest school up north and guys have got to be all about that. Any time we recruit a transfer, we have to make sure it’s the right fit for both sides. Whether it’s a transfer or a freshman coming in, they become part of the family.”

Fagnano, a junior with two more years of eligibility, said he hasn’t talked to anyone specifically about the portal. But, he added, “It does bring another factor to the game. I think most of the team is happy. And we’re hungry. There’s always going to be guys who leave for different reasons. But we always end up with a couple too.”

Fagnano, who had surgery on a fractured fibula in September, performed well in the final two wins. “He was a big reason we won them,” Charlton said. “He’s a special player.”

In his absence, Derek Robertson stepped in and led the Black Bears to four wins.

Now, said Faganon, he’s looking at improving in the offseason. “I just need to see what I can do better,” he said.

Sophomore linebacker Xavier Nurse finished fourth on the team in tackles with 60, said he doesn’t pay attention to the portal. “I don’t focus on that,” he said. “I focus on whoever is with us going into the season. If someone leaves, that’s their decision. Stuff happens. And I wish the best of luck to them. That’s just part of college football now.”

Nurse said he too has work to do in the offseason. “It’s about getting in the playbook, getting stronger and preparing for next season,” he said.

When asked if he would target any particular positions in recruiting, Charlton said, “It’s always across the board, we’re always looking at every position.”

Maine will need to add depth on the offensive line, and bring in some kickers. And, of course, the Black Bears are losing not only Ray Miller at linebacker, but Andre Miller at wide receiver.

“We only have 63 scholarships,” said Charlton. “I’ve got to be pretty intelligent how I use them.”


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