ORONO — Defense held the early advantage before the passing game came to life Saturday during the University of Maine football team’s annual Jeff Cole Memorial Spring Game at Alfond Stadium.

The scrimmage marked the end of spring practice for the Black Bears – three-and-a-half weeks that allowed the team to work on fundamentals and get to know its new head coach, Jordan Stevens, a former UMaine captain. Saturday’s scrimmage was played in front of a few hundred fans, mostly friends and family of the team.

“There was a lot of good things out there today, on both sides of the ball. Guys were flying around out there, having fun. Some young guys (were) stepping up and making plays. It was really good to be back out here,” said senior quarterback Joe Fagnano, who after the game was announced as one of the four team captains for the 2022 season.

Cole, who was an assistant coach with the Black Bears, died in 2004 after a battle with cancer. The annual spring game was named in his honor in 2006. Much of the day pitted the first-team offense versus the first-team defense, followed by their second-team counterparts. The offense started drives at various spots on the field, working on goal-line and red-zone situations.

Defense held the advantage early, forcing punts on the first four possessions, before the offense began to string together a few scoring drives.

“I thought the defense came out strong and did a great job and forced a number of three-and-outs. It was good to see everyone compete on the goal line, and I thought the offense did a nice job finishing. There was a lot of good things back and forth all spring, and that’s the most promising thing. We’ve got guys who made plays on both sides,” Stevens said.

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Defensively, a highlight was the ability to swarm to the ball and stuff the run. Many run plays went for zero or little gain.

“Swarming to the ball is one of our biggest keys. It’s something we harp on, trying to get 11 hats to the ball,” said first-team nose tackle Raffaele Salamone, a Portland native and Deering High graduate. “I think from Day 1 to now, we made some big strides on defense – the defensive line, particularly.”

With Freddie Brock, who led the Black Bears with 720 yards rushing and seven touchdowns last season, out because of an injury, Tavion Banks and Garrison Burnett got most of the carries Saturday. Wide receiver is a question mark after the graduation of Old Town native Andre Miller and the departure of Devin Young. That pair combined for 93 catches, 1,269 yards and six touchdowns last season. Fagnano connected with redshirt freshman Tyrese Baptiste on a 35-yard touchdown pass for the day’s first score.

Fagnano also threw touchdown passes to tight end Shawn Bowman and wideout Zavier Scott, who at times was used as a wildcat quarterback. Backup quarterback Derek Robertson found tight end Eli Mahan for a long touchdown pass. Freshman receiver Rohan Jones, who enrolled at Maine in January, also made a handful of catches, including a touchdown pass from Jack Kelley as the scrimmage ended.

“Back and forth, but that’s the way you want it. You don’t want it one-sided one way or another. You want these guys competing. You want guys competing every time,” Fagnano said. “Zavier Scott had a heck of a spring. Tyrese had a heck of a spring. Rohan, he came in early and started making plays all over the place. Also, it’s good to see the tight ends improving, too. Shawn Bowman, we want to be able to get him the ball. He’s a playmaker for us. It’s my job to get them the ball, and hopefully I can do that.”

Stevens pointed to the play of senior linebacker Brian Lee as a highlight. Junior defensive end Jacob Tuiasosopo was disruptive on the line of scrimmage. Safeties Shakur Smalls and Jylun Spence each broke up passes down the middle of the field.

Kicker Cole Baker looked strong, making 4 of 5 field-goal tries, including a 46-yarder.

Joining Fagnano as captains are center Mike Gerace, Bowman and linebacker Adrian Otero. Most improved awards went to Baptiste, Lee and Xavier Mitchell.

The Black Bears open the season Sept. 3 at New Mexico. Maine’s first home game is Sept. 10 against Colgate.

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