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NFL travels through Orono, Maine

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - His season over late last fall, University of Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove enjoyed an opportunity to sit down and watch some NFL action on a Sunday afternoon.

Oh, was it ever "must-see TV".

First up, he caught Jovan Belcher, one of his former linebackers at Maine, make seven tackles for the Kansas City Chiefs against the Pittsburgh Steelers. After that game, the New York Jets and the New England Patriots aired on Cosgrove's TV, and he watched for Jets defensive end Mike DeVito and tight end Matt Mulligan, two of his former players, and Pats free safety Brandon McGowan, another of his former standouts.

"It was just like it was yesterday," Cosgrove said of the feeling of watching his former charges.

Schools like Florida, Miami-Florida, Oklahoma and Southern California are well- known for being pipelines to the NFL. Not so well-known is how Maine's smaller-than-12,000-student campus, tucked away in the northeast corner of the United States in Orono - nearly 250 miles north of Boston - holds its own in the Football Championship Subdivision.

No FCS program had more than Maine's seven NFL players last season, and the Black Bears hope to have eight or nine players on rosters this fall. An ESPN tracker of school breakdowns indicates Montana's banner 2010 crop of hopefuls gives it 10 players heading into training camps. Weber State has nine, while Massachusetts and Northern Iowa each has eight.

Maine offensive tackle Tyler Eastman was named to
the CAA Football second team as a senior in 2009.
Considering the weather is often harsh in Maine during the prime recruiting period in December and January, luring NFL talent to Orono isn't easy. Often what players find at the CAA Football school helps to make them better players.

"It's a by-product of hard work and the things that the guys have accomplished here," said Cosgrove, who is 93-101 in 17 seasons at Maine. "Certainly, we're not as high-profile an institution and a football program as a lot of the others, in our league even. There's an environment here that I think is pretty conducive to success and growth. And we've had some young men who've had some ability and been overlooked in the recruiting process that have ended up here. This place has worked for them, the system's worked for them. The results have led them to be able to play this game after college.

"This place is a little bit isolated, a little bit off the beaten path. They say not too many people pass by Maine; you go to Maine, you turn around and go back. So it's worked for us. The guys that have come here have liked the environment."

Maine's NFL contingent includes San Diego Chargers inside linebacker Stephen Cooper, who is entering his eighth season and had 102 tackles and three forced fumbles last season. Maine takes credit for another linebacker, Lofa Tatupu, who spent his freshman year with the Black Bears before transferring to Southern Cal. He averaged 107 tackles in his first four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks before an injury limited him to only five games last season.

Jacksonville Jaguars special teams captain Montell Owens, who is entering his fifth season, was a Pro Bowl alternate last season. McGowan, in his sixth season, had 79 tackles and three forced fumbles with the Patriots a year ago, while Belcher was in on 48 stops as a rookie with the Chiefs. DeVito, now in his fourth season, had 28 tackles for the Jets, while Mulligan was mostly a practice squad player in his rookie campaign, although he caught one pass.

Offensive tackle Tyler Eastman went undrafted in April, but is in camp with the Chiefs. Rookie wide receiver Landis Williams was cut by the Denver Broncos, but is getting looks elsewhere.

"In Tyler's situation, it's really going to be interesting to watch," Cosgrove said. "He's going to a place where he has a [Maine] teammate in Jovan Belcher who's there. I'm sure he's already learned a lot about expectations and how to come in and be ready to go.

"Landis is going to have to make the plays that we saw him make at this level, be more competitive and show his skill level."

AROUND THE FCS

- You hear too much about college athletes being on the wrong side of the law. Southern Illinois offensive tackle David Pickard and tight end C.J. Robertson were the antithesis of that notion when they stopped a robbery earlier this summer.

The two were taking the Green Line home from a Chicago Cubs game when they noticed three suspicious people board the train, spread out and gesture to each other. At a stop, one of the youths swiped an older gentleman's iPhone and tried to exit the train. Pickard instinctively pancaked him to the floor, and then he and Robertson restrained him until police arrived at the next stop.

The accomplices got away, but riders cheered for the SIU pair. The thankful man whose iPhone had been taken was so grateful that he paid for the players' cab fare back to their stop.

- Grambling State is still awaiting the NCAA's decision on whether two-year quarterback Greg Dillon will be granted a sixth year of eligibility, a decision that will play a key role in the complexion of the Southwestern Athletic Conference race. Dillon's walk-on status at a university prior to Grambling gives the Tigers hope they he will be able to play again this fall.

"Not knowing is the tough part," head coach Rod Broadway said. "They need to let us know one way or the other, and we can move on. Now we'd love to have Greg back because he's been a tremendous player for us. And a tremendous leader."

- Let's get physical. Gardner-Webb has hired a pair of line coaches, Kris King to coach the offensive linemen and Bobby Godinez to coach the defensive linemen. King was an offensive lineman for the Runnin' Bulldogs and spent the 2007 and '08 seasons as a graduate assistant at Gardner-Webb before spending last season as a video assistant at UAB. Godinez, a former safety at San Jose State, arrived from a coaching stint at Mt. San Antonio College

- Old Dominion lost two starting linebackers to academic ineligibility, Mychael McJunkins and A.T. Aoelua. McJunkins led the Monarchs with 85 tackles last season, while Aoelua was third with 50. The Monarchs are entering their second season of play as an independent and will play in CAA Football in 2011.

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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