ORONO, Maine — When Sterling Sheffield came for his official visit to the University of Maine, he was greeted by a January snowstorm.
“My dad [Adrian] told me, ‘We’ve got to make sure you have a four-wheel-drive [vehicle] up here,” grinned Sheffield.
“That’s usually the case when our recruits come up for their January visits. It pounds snow on Saturdays,” chuckled UMaine head football coach Joe Harasymiak, who recruited Sheffield along with former assistant coach Shawn Demaray.
Since he arrived on the Orono campus, Sheffield has been plowing over running backs and quarterbacks.
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Last season, as a true freshman, the rover back appeared in 10 games, including one start, and made 16 tackles. He was named UMaine’s defensive rookie of the year. He had 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
Sheffield has already been in on 22 tackles through the first three games of this season to rank second on the team. That includes three tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception and a pass breakup.
Sheffield and the Black Bears look to snap a seven-game losing streak dating back to last season when they entertain 2-2 Bryant University of Smithfield, Rhode Island, on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Alfond Stadium.
His freshman season was eye-opening as he made the transition from playing high school football at Clearview Region in New Jersey to the Football Championship Subdivision. He made his debut against Football Bowl Subdivision team Boston College.
“It was a hell of a jump … the speed of the game … how big the linemen were,” said Sheffield, whose father was a linebacker at Howard University. “I didn’t know that I was college football-ready until we played Boston College. Before that, I was amused by everything that was going on.”
Sheffield said he and his teammates gained confidence from that performance. UMaine lost 24-3 but trailed only 10-3 after three quarters.
“I was really excited to get that kind of opportunity last year,” Sheffield said.
“Even when the stage got pretty bright, I had Randy [Samuels], Trevor [Bates], Mike [Kozlakowski] and Christophe [Mulumba-Tshimanga] helping me,” he added.
Sheffield spent a lot of time “diving into film and the playbook” with Mulumba-Tshimanga and he feels he is a better player this season.
The offseason strength and conditioning program was beneficial for him and he has learned how to get the most out of watching game film.
“Now I know how to watch film. Last year I watched it just to watch it,” he explained. “Now I have a basic understanding of plays and what the tendencies are before the ball is snapped,” said Sheffield, a 6-foot-2, 237-pound native of Mullica Hill, New Jersey.
“Sterling is not only athletic, strong and quick, he is also very, very smart and that’s what separates great players from good players,” said Harasymiak.
“He is an outside linebacker who can also go inside or rush the passer at an end spot,” he continued, adding, “If he were a golf club, he would be a hybrid. He does a little bit of everything.”
Sheffield has broadened his horizons by learning how to play three positions, which helps him understand the defensive scheme.
“He’s a huge piece of our defense,” said senior quarterback Dan Collins. “He’s hardworking, he’s a great-effort, great-attitude guy.”
“He is a presence on the field,” said junior cornerback Najee Goode.
The Black Bears will have their hands full against a Bryant team that features senior quarterback Dalton Easton. He ranks fifth nationally in passing yards (1,138) and passing touchdowns (10).
Easton threw for 301 yards in a 13-10 win over Maine in 2014 after Maine had won the previous three years.
“He’s a really solid player who puts the ball in situations where guys can run on to it,” Harasymiak said. “He can fling it around and he has weapons who can catch it.”
Bryant’s leading receiver is senior Taylor Barthelette (22 catches-398 yards).
Collins has completed 41 of 80 passes for 572 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Leading receiver Jaleel Reed (9-180) will return after missing last week’s 31-20 loss to James Madison while serving a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules.
Darian Davis-Ray (21 carries, 114 yards) is Maine’s top rusher while Ryan Black is Bryant’s top ground gainer (46-for-186).
Mulumba Tshimanga is Maine’s top tackler (36) while Jesse Nemerowicz paces the Bulldogs (23).