Thursday, December 5, 2013
ORONO -- When you arrive in Orono as a wide-eyed freshman hailing from a suburb of New York or Washington, D.C., the culture shock can be significant.
Maine at Richmond
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
"This place is different," said Jack Cosgrove, the University of Maine football coach. "The isolation, the volume of people, the pace of life. Some guys struggle with it."
Not every football recruit -- heck, not every freshman -- survives that initial experience of college, of being away from home and on your own.
"You'll hear stories all the time about our guys, and they wondered how they got through the first year here," Cosgrove said. "But they do. And after that, they blossom."
Two who figure prominently in the current Black Bears bouquet are senior wide receiver Derrick Johnson and junior cornerback Axel Ofori. Johnson, who grew up in Hempstead, N.Y., just east of New York City, leads the Colonial Athletic Association with 29 receptions in four games.
Ofori, who grew up in Gaithersburg, Md., just north of the nation's capital, is the newcomer for a secondary ranked second in the CAA in pass defense. He took over at cornerback from Darlos James, one of two graduated Black Bears from last fall to receive NFL free-agent tryout invitations.
"I learned a lot from Darlos last year," said Ofori, who in the secondary trails only safety Jamal Clay in tackles, with 15, and has one of Maine's four interceptions. "What he taught me, I'm using now."
The Black Bears (3-1) open their conference schedule Saturday afternoon in Virginia against the University of Richmond (2-2). The Spiders lead the CAA in passing yardage with a 288 per game average and sport two dangerous targets in Stephan Barnette and Ben Edwards.
Cosgrove called them "what we think are the two best receivers we'll see this year."
Coming into the season, a major concern of Cosgrove was consistent play from his own wide receivers, Johnson included.
"I'd have one good practice and the next one would be a bad one," Johnson said. "Or one good game and the next one would be a bad one. This year, I've been trying to focus on the little things, on always trying to chase perfection."
Johnson and cornerback Kendall James are the team's two fastest players, with speed more commonly associated with Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) programs such as Northwestern, which beat Maine 35-21 last weekend in Evanston, Ill.
"They get people's attention because of that," Cosgrove said. "The thing we try to do is get (Johnson) the ball on screens and short stuff because you can get some one-on-one (coverage) or some creases on those things, and maybe he can use his speed to get out."
The Black Bears also use Johnson to extend defenses. His 59-yard reception from quarterback Marcus Wasilewski against Northwestern came on a deep post route and set up Maine's second touchdown.
"That was just a great read by (Wasilewski)," Cosgrove said. "(Johnson) clearly had beat his man."
Ofori is not often the man who gets beat. As a sophomore last season, he gained valuable experience as a fifth defensive back before earning a starting role this fall.
"Axel is a tremendously talented kid," Cosgrove said. "He has become a very important and special player for us. It's exciting to see that as a coach, a kid who makes those steps of growth, not only on the football field but as a young man in the classroom and just in life."
Ofori wound up at Maine after other colleges shied away because of a knee injury suffered early in his senior season of high school. Louisville was among the schools that retracted a verbal offer.
"Everything happens for a reason," Ofori said. "Fortunately, Maine offered me a full scholarship and I took it."
As for the environment in Orono, Ofori has gotten used to it.
"It's a lot different from home," he said. "It's very quiet. It's away from distractions, a good place for me to focus."