Perhaps no one knows more about the problems the University of Maine can cause opposing offenses than Nick Charlton, who is entering his first season as Maine’s head coach.
Charlton was Maine’s offensive coordinator last season, when the “Black Hole” defense propelled Maine to a 10-4 record and the program’s first trip to the FCS semifinals. His offensive unit went up against that defense in some form or fashion in practice every day.
Defense figures to be a strength for the Black Bears again in 2019, since 16 of the 22 defensive players on the team’s two-deep chart at the end of last season are back this year.
“I know things we like and don’t like to see as an offense,” said Charlton, who was elevated to head coach when Joe Harasymiak left Maine after the 2018 season to become an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota. “That defense is a very physical unit. They tackle well, and tackling is very important when it comes to stopping the run. And they challenge you every time you throw. Every snap you’re being challenged.
“We still have a number of strong guys on that defense. There’s a good amount of depth.”
Some significant off-the-field changes were made to the Maine defense during the offseason. Among them: Mike Ryan was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator when Corey Hetherman, Maine’s defensive coordinator in 2018, left to take a similar position at James Madison. Ryan is entering his sixth season with the Maine program.
“Mike was the best person for the job,” Charlton said. “Mike’s his own coach with his own ideas so there will be some changes, but the identity of our defense will still be an aggressive one.”
Ryan is undoubtedly hoping not much changes on the field for his defense this season. No FCS team was better than Maine at stopping the run a year ago, when the Black Bears led the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (79.2). In addition, Maine led the Colonial Athletic Association in sacks per game (3.36), tackles for loss per game (8.4) and turnovers gained (31).
One of Maine’s best defensive games came in the FCS quarterfinals, when it knocked off Weber State 23-18 on the road. The Black Bears intercepted four passes in that victory and held Weber State to minus-1 yard rushing. Weber State running back Josh Davis, the FCS Freshman of the Year, averaged 113.5 yards rushing per game in 2018, but was held to 12 yards on 11 carries in that loss.
The 2018 Black Bears also finished fourth nationally in fumble recoveries, sixth in interceptions and 15th in defensive touchdowns.
Maine’s defensive returnees include cornerback Manny Patterson, who has been mentioned by some media outlets as a candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award (top defensive player at the FCS level).
“Manny’s an elite player,” Charlton said. “He’d start at about any program in the country, FCS or FBS. Nobody works harder than Manny. He has professional speed. He’s a dominant defensive back in our league.”
The Black Bears will have to replace safeties Jeff DeVaughn and Darrius Hart, but, including Patterson, have five defensive backs who each played in at least 12 games last season. That group includes Katley Joseph, Shaquille St-Lot, Erick Robertson and Richard Carr.
University of Connecticut transfer Jordan Swann, who played in four games for Maine last year before suffering a season-ending injury against Yale, and Joshua Huffman will also be vying for playing time in the defensive backfield. Huffman appeared in 31 games during his first three seasons with the Black Bears, but sat out last season.
Defensive back Donovan Bunch could make a significant contribution as a freshman as well. Bunch originally committed to Rutgers. He had 10 scholarship offers from FBS schools.
“Our philosophy as a defensive staff is we want to be aggressive,” Ryan said. “We want to try to force the offense’s hand. We want to make sure we dictate where the ball goes, and we want to make them make plays. So we’re gonna be aggressive. We’re gonna be pressed on the outside. We’re gonna make sure we bring pressure, a lot like we have in the past.”
🎥 No. 5 -— Maine Football (@BlackBearsFB) January 17, 2019
Sheffield forced his way through the Western Kentucky line before strip-sacking the WKU QB. Deshawn Stevens scooped up the loose ball before taking it 50-yards for the game-tying score. Maine would go on to capture its third-ever FBS win.#BlackBearNation | #CAAFB pic.twitter.com/joJCfjxW1v
Maine also returns inside linebacker Deshawn Stevens and defensive lineman Charles Mitchell. Stevens recorded a team-high 120 tackles last season, including nine sacks and 17 tackles for loss. Mitchell, a senior, opened the season with 2.5 sacks in a victory over rival New Hampshire. Charlton called him the most underrated player in the CAA.
“It all starts up front for us stopping the run and Mitchell can ruin games for people,” Charlton said. “That includes ruining things for me in practice (last season).
“Stevens is one of the best, if not the best, linebacker in the conference. He’s a future pro.”
So the pieces seem to be in place for Maine to have another dominant defense. Of course talent alone doesn’t guarantee the kind of success the Maine defense had last season. Charlton said he’s challenged his defensive unit in a number of ways in an attempt to avoid complacency.
“A big question is going to be, ‘Hey, how are you going to repeat the success that you guys had?’” Ryan said. “The biggest thing that we have to fall back on is the experience. We have to lean on that and that needs to be a strength for us going into this year in order to repeat that success.
“The identity of our defense is here and it’s stable. We’ve got to play with that Black Hole mentality in order to win.”