Blue Hens have high hopes as Rocco era begins

NEWARK — Brody Kern didn’t mince any words.

When the senior center stood up to talk to his Delaware football teammates a few weeks ago, he basically told them they have nothing to show for their careers.

All the Blue Hens have done lately is post back-to-back 4-7 seasons and extend the program’s streak to six straight years without making the playoffs.

“Whenever you talk to fans, all they talk about is 2010, (2007) or 2003 — the last time Delaware was in the national championship,” Kern told his teammates. “And I said, ‘We are nothing. We’re nothing.’

“If we go 4-7 again this year, all these seniors that are graduating are never going to be talked about again. We don’t matter. We’re irrelevant. I said, it’s time that Delaware football is relevant again — and we make ourselves relevant.”

Of course, players on the last six Blue Hen squads have said similar things without getting the results they wanted.

Danny Rocco’s claim to fame is that he’s never had a losing season as a college head coach, going a combined 90-42 in 11 seasons at Liberty and Richmond. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

But Delaware, which opens the season by hosting Delaware State on Thursday night, has one big reason to believe things really will be different this fall — Danny Rocco.

Athletic director Chrissi Rawak hired the highly-regarded Rocco away from CAA rival Richmond in December. Rocco’s claim to fame is that he’s never had a losing season as a college head coach, going a combined 90-42 in 11 seasons at Liberty and Richmond.

Junior quarterback Joe Walker is back for his third year as a starter.

He took the Spiders to three straight NCAA Division I FCS playoff appearances, reaching the national semifinals two years ago.

And for Delaware fans looking for reasons to be optimistic, Rocco says he likes what he sees in his new squad. Rocco went 6-5 in his first season at Liberty in 2006 and 8-3 in his debut campaign at Richmond in 2012.

“I told them (the players) this really is one of the more talented teams I’ve had,” Rocco said after scrimmaging on Tuesday night. “They just have to understand what it takes to win. And the margin of error in this league is so small.

“It’s a much deeper roster,” said Rocco, comparing this team to his first teams at Liberty and Richmond. “I mean I’ve got a good-looking football team. … It just comes down to doing the little things that make the difference between winning and losing.”

The one thing about former coach Dave Brock, who was fired in the middle of last season with a four-year record of 19-22, he always had an eye on the future. He never wanted to have a roster that would get wiped out with the graduation of one big senior class.

“It’s time that Delaware football is relevant again — and we make ourselves relevant,” senior center Brody Kern said.

So Rocco inherits a squad with 51 returning letterwinners, including 19 players who have started six or more games.

“In previous years, where we had young players playing for the first time, those guys are going to be two or three-year starters now,” said Kern. “I think we’re a lot older team, a lot more experienced team than we have been. And I think, with the adjustments that this coaching staff has made. … the way we practice is just completely different.

“There’s a lot less bad practices. I mean, we’ve practiced for almost a month now and I think you can count the bad practices we’ve had on about a hand.”

There’s a belief that, if the Hens are going to get anywhere, they have to improve their passing game, which has been among the least productive in FCS for two years in a row. Junior quarterback Joe Walker is back for his third year as a starter but Delaware believes its receiving corps should be improved.

The Hens also believe their defense should keep them in most of their games. That group, which switches to a 3-4 alignment, is led by senior nose tackle Bilal Nichols, junior linebacker Troy Reeder and junior safety Nasir Adderley.

“This defense is amazing,” said senior lineman Blaine Woodson. “We’ve got players on every level of the defense. I feel like we can be one of the best defenses in the country.”

If nothing else, this group seems to believe in itself and its new coaching staff. Now they’ll have to see if that confidence can translate into a better record.

“It’s a different atmosphere in that locker room and you can feel it,” said Kern. “Just the talking about winning. That’s not something we did before. There was always doubt. And there’s no doubts (now). We have full confidence in the coaches that we have to make great decisions, make adjustments, make changes if need be. I think it’s just a different mindset.”

The 2017 Blue Hens

A position-by-position look at the Delaware football team for this season:

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK: Certainly some people expected that Delaware’s change of coaching staff would also mean a change of quarterback. But Joe Walker (Jr., 6-3, 205) will begin the season as UD’s starter for the third-straight year.

Clearly, though, the Hens will need better production out of Walker than the four TD passes and 12 interceptions he’s thrown in his first team seasons.

Appalachian State transfer J.P. Caruso (Jr., 5-11, 200) has shown that he throws a nice ball but doesn’t have Walker’s size or experience. Caruso, though, will get the chance to prove himself in Delaware’s season-opening stretch of three nonconference contests.

Pat Kehoe (So., 6-3, 230) will be the third-stringer at quarterback.

RUNNING BACK: What looked like one of the Hens’ deepest positions suddenly turned into a question mark in camp when Wes Hills was declared ineligible while Thomas Jefferson (Jr., 6-1, 210) and Kareem Williams (Jr., 5-10, 210) were both dealing with injury issues.

That being said, if they stay healthy, both Jefferson (1,590 yards, 13 TDs) and Williams (934 yards) have proven to be quality backs. The Hens are also intriguied by the potential of newcomer Khory Spruill (Fr., 6-0, 215) while Sussex Tech grad Kani Kane (Jr., 6-0, 240) will also get his chance to carry the ball in his first season after transferring from Lackawana.

Delaware’s new offense will also feature a fullback with veteran utility player Kyle Yocum (Sr., 6-1, 240) getting the starting job.

ndian River product Jamie Jarmon eems poised to have a better year after getting contact lenses to improve his vision.

RECEIVER: The Hens’ wideouts also bear some of the blame for the offense’s lack of passing production over the last couple years. But Delaware also expects to be improved at the position this fall.

With 92 catches for 908 yards, Diante Cherry (Sr., 5-10, 190) has been the Hens’ top receiver through most of his career. Former Indian River High standout Jamie Jarmon (Jr., 6-1, 200) seems poised to have a much-better year after getting contact lenses to improve his vision.

Vinny Papale (Jr., 6-1, 210) is slated to start after recovering from a knee injury with youngsters Ty McElhenie (Fr., 6-2, 190) and Thyrick Pitts (Fr., 6-2, 200) getting the chance to contribute. Counting walk-ons, Delaware has 20 receivers listed on the roster.

At tight end, Charles Scarff (Sr., 6-5, 270) has shown the ability to be a big, dangerous target at times while Brandon Whaley (Sr., 6-5, 250) has been solid throughout his career. M.J. Kehoe (So., 6-7, 255) has also been a frequent target in preseason scrimmages after switching from tackle.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Delaware knows what it has in center Brody Kern (Sr., 6-2, 285), who has started all 33 games of his career. Left tackle Jake Trump (Sr., 6-6, 290) is also a proven lineman having played in 34 games with 23 starts.

Right tackle Jethro Pepe (Jr., 6-7, 280) and left guard Connor Lutz (So., 6-5, 300) both got playing time a year ago. At right guard, Mario Farinella (Jr., 6-0, 300) and Penn State transfer Noah Beh (Jr., 6-6, 300) are no strangers to game action.

DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE LINE: The Hens are expecting big things out of Bilal Nichols (Sr., 6-4, 290), who slides over to nose tackle as Delaware switches to a 3-4 defense.

Former CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year Blaine Woodson (Sr., 6-2, 280) will man the tackle spot with either Cam Kitchen (Jr., 6-1, 260) or Sal Mauro (Fr., 6-2, 265) starting at the one remaining defensive end slot. Considering that backups Grant Roberts (Sr., 5-11, 285) and John Nassib (Sr., 6-6, 265) have played in 68 games between them, Delaware likes its depth up front.

With 217 career tackles, linebacker Charles Bell is an all-CAA veteran.

LINEBACKER: Delaware uses four linebackers in its new alignment but looks to have enough talent to go around at the position.

With 217 career tackles, Charles Bell (Sr., 6-0, 230) is an all-CAA veteran, Troy Reeder (Jr., 6-2, 245) is an impact player in his second year after transferring from Penn State and Anthony Jackson (Sr., 6-1, 225) has 22 starts and 122 tackles in his career.

At the other outside spot, the Hens expect former Salesianum star Colby Reeder (Fr., 6-3, 235) to make an immediate impact with veteran Armen Ware (Jr., 6-0, 225) also in the picture. Delaware’s biggest concern at linebacker might be depth after Jasawn Thompson and Larry Spears were declared ineligible before camp.

SECONDARY: The Hens expect Nasir Adderley (Jr., 6-0, 190) to have a bigger impact after switching from cornerback to the rover safety spot.

Everywhere else in the defensive backfield Delaware has experienced players, including Ray Jones (Jr., 6-0, 210) at strong safety and Malcolm Brown (Jr., 6-0, 200) and Justin Watson (Sr., 5-9, 180) at cornerback. Even reserves K.C. Hinton (Jr., 5-11, 200) and Tenny Adewusi (Jr., 6-1, 200) have seen their share of playing time. That group has eight interceptions between them.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Frank Raggo (Jr., 5-9, 190) returns for his third season as the Hens’ placekicker. For his career, he’s 46-of-47 on PATs and 18-of-27 on field goals.

Nick Pritchard (So., 5-10, 210), the starter at Maryland two years ago, steps into the starting punter job. He averaged 38.2 yards a kick for the Terps. Jake Roth (So., 6-0, 200) will handle kickoffs again this fall.

Delaware football

2017 schedule

AUGUST

31-DELAWARE STATE 7 p.m.

SEPTEMBER

9-At Virginia Tech 3:30 p.m.

16-CORNELL 3:30 p.m.

30-JAMES MADISON* 3:30 p.m.

OCTOBER

7-At Stony Brook* 6 p.m.

14-WILLIAM & MARY*# 3:30 p.m.

21-RICHMOND* (HC) 3:30 p.m.

28-At Towson* 4 p.m.

NOVEMBER

4-At Maine*@ 2 p.m.

11-ALBANY* 3:30 p.m.

18-At Villanova* 1 p.m.

* CAA game.

# Parents & Family Weekend

@ Game played at Portland, Maine

2016 results

2-6 CAA, 4-7 overall

W-Delaware State 56-14

W-Lafayette 24-6

L-Wake Forest 21-38

L-James Madison 20-43

L-Maine 21-28

L-William & Mary 17-24

L-Stony Brook 3-28

W-Towson 20-6

W-Albany 33-17

L-Richmond 17-31

L-Villanova 10-41

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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