Hens’ Hill has had to grow up quickly

Delaware football coach Danny Rocco (center) named next season’s captains at Saturday’s Blue-White scrimmage. The four captains, from left to right, are Cam Kitchen, Nijuel Hill, Mario Farinella and Pat Kehoe. Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell

NEWARK — First impressions seem to really stick with Danny Rocco.

So when the Delaware football coach thinks of cornerback Nijuel Hill, he always remembers the 2017 Virginia Tech game.

A redshirt freshman, Hill got his first start against the No. 18 Hokies that afternoon.

“You talk about getting thrown into the fire,” said Rocco. “We threw him in the fire and they went after him. He held up really well.”

Rocco recalled that moment on Saturday after announcing that Hill will be one of the Blue Hens’ captains for the upcoming season.

Now a fourth-year junior, Hill has had his ups and downs over the last couple seasons. But Rocco likes the way the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder has responded to adversity.

Hill got beat on some long passes a year ago.

“I think the biggest thing is, he continued to just trust the process,” said Rocco. “He didn’t flush the year down the toilet, He just kept taking the things that he had done well and he built on them.

“We have talented player there,” Rocco added. “We have a good person there. We have a guy who believes really in the value of this team.”

After Delaware graduated many of its veteran defensive backs, Hill is clearly the most experienced player in the group.

Senior Pat Kehoe returns as the Blue Hens’ starting quarterback.

He’s played in all 23 games of his career with 41 tackles, 12 pass breakups and three interceptions.

Hill remembers that Virginia Tech game too, of course. He admits he was scared that day.

He also knows he had something to prove to the Hens’ coaches after last season.

“I was just trying to be more consistent so I could be a leader on the field,” Hill said about this spring.

Hill also doesn’t hide from the fact that Delaware’s defense is going to be inexperienced at several spots in the fall. He said they’re just going to have to play that much harder.

“Everyone knows that we’re young on defense because we have a lot of experience that left us,” he said. “Just coming out here, flying around, making plays, showing enthusiasm … because obviously we’re going to make mistakes as a young defensive group. If we cover that up with enthusiasm and relentless pursuit, that’s all we can really ask for.”

As a team captain, it’s going to be Hill’s job to keep that young group of players moving in the right direction. He remembers how it is to be a young player.

“I am vocal when I need to be,” he said. “But I’d rather lead by example. If they come to me and ask for it, I’ll be willing to help them 100 percent. But if I do need to speak out, I’m never one to shy away from that leadership role.”

Kehoe has come a long way

A year ago at this time, Pat Kehoe’s playing time consisted of one backup series in one game in three seasons.

There was no reason to think the big quarterback’s role was going to change much, either.

Now, however, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior is a returning starter for the Hens with 12 starts under his belt. The last thing Kehoe wants to do is get complacent.

“I know where I came from to play last year,” Kehoe said after Saturday’s spring game. “I realize that I could be the subject of getting taken over (by another QB) here.

“I’ve got to come out and make sure I give my best effort every day. I push the younger guys and the younger guys push me. I just want to be a leader for this group.”

Kehoe completed 12-of-20 passes for 140 yards and the scrimmage’s only touchdown on Saturday. He was also named a team captain for the second straight season.

It was a tough ending to the 2018 season for Kehoe, who was hobbled by a knee injury in Delaware’s last few games. He threw a total of 17 TD passes but none in the Hens’ last four games.

With a new offensive coordinator in Jared Ambrose, Kehoe also has a lot to learn.

“I’ve seen a lot of things over my time here,” said Kehoe. “I want to just pass that on to our younger guys.

“I’m happy with the progress we’ve made and I’m excited for where we’re going into the summer.”

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