NEWARK — Dave Brock is a smart enough coach to realize he doesn’t have a perfect football team.
He also knows there are ways he could patch up this year’s Delaware squad with some quick fixes.
But Brock, the Blue Hens’ second-year coach, says that’s not the way he’s going to do things.
“I could have gone out and taken 12 transfers,” he said. “But that’s not philisophically what this program is going to be.
“We’re going to be about rebuilding and it’s going to be done by recruiting and developing the right people, the right players and the right students. I think we’ll be on track to have something that’s really special. [But] I don’t think that that precludes us from winning.”
All of which makes it’s difficult to know what to expect from the Delaware team that opens the 2014 season with a noon game at Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Certainly there’s enough talent in some spots to think the Hens have a chance at ending their three-year streak of missing the NCAA FCS playoffs.
Since Delaware first went to the NCAA Division II playoffs in 1974, the Hens never have gone more than three seasons without earning a playoff berth.
Senior Trent Hurley is Delaware’s first three-year starting quarterback since 2000. And big-play receiver Michael Johnson and tight end Nick Boyle head up a veteran group of pass catchers back from an offense that averaged 32.8 points and 417 yards per game a year ago in a 7-5 campaign.
On the other hand, only two of Delaware’s offensive linemen and none of its four scholarship running backs have started a game in college.
Brock says “the imbalance on the roster is staggering.” He said that means the Hens will just have to lean on their veteran players a little more.
“You need your established players to play great,” said Brock. “We need Michael Johnson to play great. We need Trent Hurley to play great. [Linebackers] Pat Callaway and David Mackall need to play great. [Safety] Jake Giusti needs to play great.
“I’ve told the seniors, they’ve got to do a great job mentoring those [young] players in getting them to understand what it’s going to take,” he added. “Realistically, those young guys are going to play a vital role in our opportunity to be successful this year.”
Defensively, perhaps the best reason for optimism is that Delaware really can’t get much worse than it was at the end of last season.
The Hens’ inability to hang onto last-minute leads in season-ending losses to Richmond and Villanova cost them a playoff berth. They ended up setting school records for both points (31.6 points) and yards (443.6) allowed per game.
Delaware has made some changes, like having co-defensive coordinators and moving Mackall to the middle linebacker spot. The Hens also have a promising group of true freshman linebackers.
Still, experienced depth, especially on the defensive line, is a major issue.
“Obviously, our easiest pathway to improvement — if all things stay equal — is to be better defensively,” said Brock. “That’s going to require a lot of health situations staying our way. … We’re really, really limited in terms of the number of scholarship players we have on both the offensive and defensive lines. We have to manage that.”
Delaware will start the season with only modest expectations.
The Hens were ranked No. 29 in the Sports Network preseason poll and were picked to finish sixth in the 12-team Colonial Athletic Association.
Last season, Delaware went 2-2 in games decided by three points or less. So while the Hens could have been 9-3, they also easily could have been 5-7.
Their margin for error doesn’t look like it will be any bigger this fall.
“I really believe if we can find a way to coach it better, if we can find a way to play better, then maybe we can close that gap,” said Brock. “The difference for us between being 9-3 and 5-7 might have been eight or 10 plays.
“It’s been an emphasis in the spring, it’s been an emphasis all summer, we certainly talk about it on a daily basis. … our ability to finish games and win those games in the end I think ultimately will determine whether or not we have a successful season.”
2014 Blue Hens
Quarterback: In his third year as Delaware’s starting QB, Trent Hurley (Sr., 6-4, 215) has been a steady player for the Hens. Last year he cut his interception total in half while more than doubling his TD pass numbers from 10 to 22. Also a good runner, Hurley can probably put up some big stats if his young offensive gives him enough time.
Justin Burns (Sr., 6-5, 220), who has played in only one game in his four seasons at Delaware, returns as a grad student to give the Hens a veteran backup. Delaware also picked up Rutgers transfer Blake Rankin (So., 6-4, 200), who can battle newcomer Joe Walker (Fr., 6-3, 185) for the starting job next season.
Running back: Delaware is excited about the potential of its two sophomores, Jalen Randolph (So., 6-1, 230) and Wes Hills (So., 6-2, 200). But Randolph, who ran for 319 yards and 4 TDs on 63 carries last season, is the only running back on the roster with any significant college experience.
The Hens will probably also play their two true freshmen running backs, Thomas Jefferson (Fr., 6-1, 205) and Kareem Williams (Fr., 5-10, 190), who have both had some good runs in preseason scrimmages.
Receiver: Michael Johnson (Sr., 6-2, 210) is poised for another big season after catching 60 passes for 1,035 yards and nine TDs last fall. The speedster is also a threat on occasional running plays and as a kick returner.
Jerel Harrison (Jr., 6-0, 185) proved to be a threat last season when he caught 36 passes for 350 yards and a TD, whileStephen Clark (Sr., 6-2, 175) is another veteran. Second-year player Diante Cherry (Fr.-r, 5-9, 185) has stood out at times during the preseason among the group of young receivers.
At tight end, Nick Boyle (Sr., 6-6, 270) is being considered an All-American candidate after catching 42 passes for 474 yards with seven TDs last season. Ryan Cobb (Sr., 6-1, 235) is a versatile player at the H back spot with Matt Rodriguez (Jr., 6-4, 260) will also see playing time at tight end.
Offensive line: With 23 straight starts, right guard J.D. Dzurko (Sr., 6-3, 305) is the Hens’ most experienced lineman. Left tackle Ben Curtis (Jr., 6-5, 290), who has 17 starts in a row, is the only other veteran up front.
Of the newcomers, right tackle Connor Bozick (So., 6-5, 305)did see a lot of time last fall. Center Brody Kern (Fr.-r, 6-2, 285) and left guard Will Lewis (So., 6-4, 260), who played in four games last season, will both have to do some on-the-job training.
Defensive line: The Hens hope defensive end Derrick Saulsberry (Sr., 6-3, 250) is ready to pick up where he left off last year when he collected 48 tackles, including eight sacks.Laith Wallschleger (Sr., 6-4, 265) would give Delaware another quality end but his playing future is up in the air as he tries to come back from a serious knee injury that sidelined him for the final seven games of 2013.
A third end, Vince Hollerman (Jr., 6-2, 250), has 19 career starts and had five sacks last year. In the middle, Josh Plummer (Jr., 6-2, 235) and David Tinsley (Jr., 6-1, 280)have both seen their share of playing time at defensive tackle.
Linebacker: The biggest change at linebacker is switching David Mackall (Sr., 6-4, 250) from the outside to the middle where Delaware hopes he can make more of an impact with his size.Veteran Patrick Callaway (Sr., 5-10, 220), who has started 32 of his 34 career games, moves to the outside while Derek Battle (Jr., 6-2, 220) is projected as the other starter.
Secondary: At cornerback, Mario Rowson (Sr., 6-3, 210)returns after registering 79 tackles last fall. Justin Watson (Fr.-r, 5-8, 180) and Roman Tatum (So., 5-10, 175), who played in all 12 games as a true freshman, are battling for the other cornerback job.
At safety, Jake Giusti (Sr., 5-11, 190) returns after missing all but three games last season with a knee injury. Ryan Tarzsa (So., 6-2, 190), Boston College transfer C.J. Jones (Sr., 5-11, 185), Simba Gwashavanhu (So., 6-1, 200) and Craig Brodsky (Jr., 5-11, 195) are all in the running for playing time at safety, as well.
A question mark at the beginning of last season, punter Eric Enderson (So., 6-2, 200) ended up setting a school record at an average of 45 yards per kick. This year, he’s made a handful of preseason All-America lists.
Delaware will have to break in a new placekicker this year with walk-on Garrett Greenway (Jr., 5-8, 160) the frontrunner to take over the job. He has seen game action on kickoffs and has been consistent on field-goal attempts in the preseason.
Sports editor Andy Walter
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