The tackling twins
LBs Goncalves, Mulumba Tshimanga lead Maine defense
ORONO, Maine -- Cabrinni Goncalves and Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga do everything in tandem.
The University of Maine linebackers study film together, eat lunch together, make a beeline for opposing ballcarriers together.
Last year they shot up the depth chart together. By the end of the year they were the biggest revelations on a Black Bear team that finished 10-3 and captured the Colonial Athletic Association title. Second-stringers when the season dawned, each recorded more than 100 tackles.
At the team's media day Friday, the two friends spoke of the strides they made together and the prospects for a veteran defense that should be the strength of the team.
"When we started last year, nobody really knew us. So we stayed near each other, we talked to each other," said Goncalves, a junior from Taunton, Massachusetts. "Every time we got on the field together, we made sure we were on our game. He brings out the best in me; I know I bring out the best in him."
Goncalves earned the starting spot at weakside linebacker during camp last year. He made an immediate impact by recording 13 tackles and two sacks in a season-opening 23-6 win at Norfolk State. He finished with 101 tackles -- with a team-leading 15 behind the line of scrimmage -- and seven pass breakups.
But there were bumps along the way.
"Early in the year he made some huge plays that would get your attention. He also had some huge plays that were negatives. Getting lined up wrong, going the wrong way, someone got wide open, those kinds of things," Maine coach Jack Cosgrove said. "That stopped in about Week 8, where he now became a guy we could truly trust."
Early in the season, Goncalves was frequently replaced so exasperated coaches could give him some sideline instruction.
He said it was a matter of learning the discipline needed in order to enjoy the freedom his position brings. At 6-foot, 215 pounds, his strength is playing in open space, relentlessly chasing down ballcarriers.
Mulumba Tshimanga had an even more improbable journey to the starting lineup.
He began his redshirt freshman season as the backup middle linebacker. But the lineup needed shuffling after defensive end Michael Kozlakowski was injured in the first week of camp.
Trevor Bates was moved from middle linebacker to end, and Mulumba Tshimanga received the surprise call to replace Bates.
Cosgrove said it was some sterling early practices that convinced the coaches Mulumba Tshimanga was ready.
In the opening game he read a Norfolk State curl pattern and dived to intercept a pass. He ended with a team-leading 118 tackles and was named the conference's defensive rookie of the year.
"His strength is as a run-stopper. He's a guy that can plug up the middle," Cosgrove said of Mulumba Tshimanga, who is 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds.
Mulumba Tshimanga was born in Congo, moved to Belgium as an infant and grew up in Montreal from age 5 on. He was a hockey player until he was 16 and some friends convinced him to give football a try.
After a season at Kent School in Connecticut, he came to Maine, redshirted a season and bonded with Goncalves for a memorable 2013 campaign.
Mulumba Tshimanga said he was nervous at first last year, especially with the added responsibility of making the defensive calls. The seniors helped calm him, he said.
Having Goncalves at his side was comforting, as well. He made it a contest to try to get to the ballcarrier before his faster friend.
"He has a heart bigger than a lion," Mulumba Tshimanga said of Goncalves. "He's really fast, shifty, never stops running to the ball.
"I do beat him to the ball sometimes. But he made more solo tackles than me (46 to 32), so that's something I need to improve."
Mulumba Tshimanga is also hoping to stay on the field in passing situations this season. He was typically removed for an extra defensive back last year to avoid being mismatched against wide receivers in the slot. Even so, he tied for second on the team with two interceptions, showing the hands of the fullback that he once was.
He's been running shuttle drills to improve his lateral movement, working on keeping his hips low, trying to read opposing offenses better.
"We'll see this year if I get in on third down, If I don't, then it's for the best of the team. I'll be fine," Mulumba Tshimanga said. "The game is slower because I've seen it all.
"I feel like we'll be even better this year."