Feb 21, 2013, 12:03 PM EDT
Editor’s Note: With National Signing Day officially in the books, over the next two weeks we will talk with local journalists and bloggers covering our 11 schools to get their take on the teams that they cover. Each day will be devoted to a different program. Today we talk with Rich Kimball of Bangor’s Sports Radio 92.9 about the Maine Black Bears.
What are your general impressions of this year’s Black Bear signing class?
I’m impressed with the class and the diversity of it. They covered a lot of different positions. It’s also good to see them going back to some recruiting areas where they’ve had some great success in the past – New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Overall, it looks like a class that has a lot of potential. Certainly with the number of guys and the size of some of them, they can be very successful.
What impresses you most about this year’s class?
I think it goes back to a couple thing. The first is Maine’s ability to get quality players to come up to the northern-most outpost in CAA Football. That’s a tribute to head coach Jack Cosgrove and his assistant coaches. They’re able to get recruit players who really buy into what Maine does and they become a part of that family.
Over the years, it’s also been Maine’s ability to find diamonds in the rough that not only play well collegiately, but also move on to the next level. Most of the Maine kids who’ve gone on to the NFL weren’t recruited by many other teams. But they were spotted by the Maine coaches, got here, followed the program and exceeded expectations.
Maine’s signing class of 20 players is among the largest in the league. What factors played into the larger size of the class?
Obviously it starts with graduation. There were also some other kids who simply decided the program wasn’t the best match for them and they moved on. This opened up a few more holes than they thought they’d have before.
I think this class adds a lot to what is already a very good nucleus coming back this year. And the fact that they’re able to bring in this large number of kids now gives them the opportunity to plan ahead for the next three or four years now.
Is the coaching staff done recruiting or should we anticipate additional guys signing at this point?
They’re keeping it pretty close to the vest, but I have heard from Coach Cosgrove that they’ve got at least one or two more guys that they think they’ll be able to bring in.
What particular holes were the coaching staff looking to fill with this year’s signing class and how successful were they in accomplishing this?
I think you can never have enough linemen, and they’ve got guys on both the offensive and defensive lines to build up and plan for the future. There may be a couple guys who can actually step in this year. They lost a couple starters from the offensive line, and it looks like they’ve got some guys who can step in.
Linebacker has always been a strength for the Black Bears as well. They got a couple of kids who look like they’ll be able to step in and compete in the next couple of years.
You certainly have to plan at the quarterback position, too, and they’ve got a great returner in rising senior Marcus Wasilewski. But they’ve actually had very good success at taking high school quarterbacks and transitioning them into other positions. A lot of Maine’s best defensive players were quarterbacks in high school. I think they really subscribe to the theory that in high school many teams will put their best athlete at quarterback and that they might be used more effectively at a different position at the college level.
So I think they addressed some immediate needs and certainly set themselves up to fill gaps left by graduation over the next year or two.
The Black Bears’ class is unique among many of the others across the league in that it does not include any transfers. Is this typical of the program’s recruiting classes?
Yes, it is. It’s been hard for Maine to get kids to transfer from the BCS level. They’ve had limited success with junior college transfers and other FCS kids. It’s a tough sell and Maine is focused instead on guys who will be here for five years.
I think Jack Cosgrove and his staff truly believe that the success of the program is centered on building a family. This may be an overused expression, but we’re somewhat isolated up here and when you have these kids for five years, they establish a close relationship because there’s not a whole lot else to do in Orono, Maine, during the course of the school year after football is over. The kids really bond and I think Coach Cosgrove believes that when you bring a kid in for one or two years as a transfer, it can be tough for them to fit in and also sends a message to the other players that they won’t necessarily be bringing in transfers who then take the spots of kids who’ve been working really hard for starting spots since they got to campus.
I think he strongly believes in what they can accomplish with kids who are committed to coming here for five years.
Three of this year’s signees are Maine natives. How focused has the coaching staff traditionally been on recruiting in-state talent versus players from out of state?
I think the goal is to always keep the best high school players in your state. They’ve had good success with that. Like you said, there are three in-state kids this year.
One is Dakota Tarbox, a talented tight end from Thornton Academy in the southern part of the state. The second is Spencer Carey, who’s a defensive back from Lawrence High School and probably one of the top two or three high school players in Maine. And the third is Coach Cosgrove’s son, Matt, who is a developing wide receiver from Banger High School and had a big senior year. They think he’s a kid who can put some weight on and be a factor for them in a couple of years.
The reality is that there just aren’t that many Division I players coming out of Maine, but you don’t see too many of them playing on other rosters. The Black Bears are usually able to keep the talented high school players in state at the University of Maine.
How do you think this class stacks up to others of years past?
You never know, but based on numbers, what I’ve seen on tape and the fact that they covered so many positions, it looks like they have a very deep class. If half of these kids turn out to be as good as they look now, I think it’ll be an exceptional class.
Who in this year’s signing class stands out to you?
There are a few. You don’t see them very often, but they have a left-handed quarterback from Connecticut named Kellen Croce. He’s a 6’2”, 185-pound guy and from what I’ve seen on tape he not only throws well, but also runs well and can throw the ball on the run. That last one is a weapon we’re seeing more and more in FCS Football. If you can get a quarterback who can work well out of the pocket, you can really make some things happen. It looks like he’s going to be a very good one down the road.
A couple running backs also look strong. There’s a big bull of a back from Connecticut, Jerickson Fedrick, who’s a 5’10, 208-pound guy who looks like he’s going to be very tough. They also have a big lineman from Bloomfield, Conn., Isaiah Brooks, who’s already 6’6”, 265 pounds. There are some speed guys as well, including Marquis Adams out of New Jersey, who’s a wide receiver and defensive back that runs a 4.5 forty.
The other thing I see with this group is a lot of kids on the honor roll. If you can get smart kids who can also play, they tend to be that much more coachable. This is especially true when you see linemen who are honor roll students. Coach Cosgrove really believes that your linemen often times have to be the brains of the operation in terms of remembering those blocking schemes. It’s many times linemen who end up as coaches. And if you get smart guys who’ve established a track record in high school and have the ability and willingness to come up here and work hard, there’s a lot of potential.
Maine has built a strong tradition at the FCS level, as evidenced by the team’s 2011 quarterfinal run. Has this kind of success changed people’s expectations for the program over the years?
I think the expectations have been big. If you go back to 2001 when Maine went to the playoffs and advanced to the quarterfinals, and now with several other playoff trips since, I think they expect to compete for a playoff spot. Fans view them as among the best teams in the CAA, which we certainly believe is the best conference in the country. As long as they can play well in nonconference games and then continue to compete for a playoff spot in a tough conference schedule, then they’ll continue to have success.
They have faired well in nonconference play and expect to do well against the FBS teams on their schedule as well. This year they’ll go to Northwestern and play UMass at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. The expectation there is that it’s not just about the money, which is always nice, but they also go in expecting to win. Fans feel the same way.
I think the success has raised expectations, but at the same time Maine fans are realistic. They understand that Maine’s operating at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of location, facilities and even the money invested in the program.
Head coach Jack Cosgrove recently received a three-year contract extension. What factors played into this?
I think the essentials of the contract were done several months earlier. Like many coaches, I know Coach Cosgrove had some concerns about the commitment of the university in terms of making sure that they can continue to compete at the highest level. I really think that’s what probably took so long – just getting some assurances that the school would continue to support the program and that it would do what it had to do in terms of money. I think he then felt confident enough to go ahead and sign that contract.
There was certainly never any question that the university wanted him to come back, and I don’t think there was any question on his end either. He loves the job and has loved raising his kids here. He’s been in Maine as a player and as a coach almost nonstop since essentially the mid-1970s. This is in many ways his home now.
On the whole, I think he just wanted to make sure they were going to continue backing the program so it would continue to be competitive.
Coach Cosgrove is a Maine alum and has been at the helm of the program for two decades. How important has he been to the success of the program both on the field and on the recruiting trail?
I don’t think you can measure it. You look at him in the same light as Villanova’s Andy Talley and William and Mary’s Jimmye Laycock. He is the Maine Football program. That consistency is key.
It’s tough to keep good assistant coaches and to maintain consistently strong programs at this level. But when you have that guy at the top that stays there and who knows what it takes to be successful at this level, and especially up here at Maine, it’s big.
He’s the face of this program and has kept it going through ups and downs. He fought for a new stadium when the old stadium was very inadequate and has proven himself as a guy who’s been able to get what he needs to be successful.
Do you have a sense of Black Bear Nation’s expectations for the program in 2013?
Again, I think expectations are always realistic and the people here understand that the margin of error in the CAA is so slim that a play or two here and there can make all the difference between a playoff season and sitting at home. I think the expectation for Maine is that they’ll compete in the conference and with a veteran quarterback and a lot of skilled players returning this year, most fans view them as a playoff team.
I know it’s early, but given your insight into the program, what do you think we can anticipate from the Black Bears this fall?
I would look for them to win five or six conference games and then to do well in their nonconference games as well. I see them as a potential playoff team, especially this year with the field expanding to 24 teams.
But you’ve got to stay healthy and have to have some lucky breaks. It’s important to take care of business in your home games, which Maine struggled to do last year, and then to do well on the road. Road games have been a strength of Maine’s. They’re 9-4 on the road over the last two seasons.
I thought they were going to be a little better than they were this past year, but any time you bring in a new quarterback there is always a transition period. While Wasilewski had been a backup and in the program, when you get thrust into that starting role, it’s a definite change. There were also a lot of injuries last year, which certainly proved to be a factor.
I like what I’ve seen, though, and am impressed by this recruiting class. I’m curious to see how spring football goes and if the guys can stay healthy. I think they’ve got a good opportunity to be a postseason team this year.
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