Hill has to be a leader for young Blue Hens

Cornerback Nijuel Hill had a big game against Virginia Tech as a freshman cornerback in 2017. University of Delaware file photo

NEWARK — It was in the Richmond game that reality finally slapped Nijuel Hill in the face.

Time after time in the second half of that game last season, the Spiders threw the ball deep against the Delaware cornerback.

Too many times, Richmond completed those passes.

Even though the Blue Hens won the game, Hill got the message.

“That’s when I knew that, ‘Well you didn’t prepare like you should have,’” said Hill. “You should know that, out of this formation, that they like to run this play.

“Coming off my freshman year … I felt like I literally was invincible,” the junior added.

The Blue Hens really hope that Hill learned his lesson. That’s because he’s now one of the most experienced players on Delaware’s rebuilt defense.

That fledgling defense — which features only two returning starters — will be under the spotlight for the first time when the Hens host Delaware State on Thursday at 7 p.m. in their season opener.

Hill admits he probably thought a little too highly of himself after he earned a starting job as a true freshman — and then had a big game at major-college Virginia Tech.

By the middle of last season, he’d lost his starting job. The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder ended up starting just five games last fall after starting 10 the year before.

“I thought I couldn’t go downhill,” Hill said about his attitude early in the season. “And honestly, at corner, that’s one thing that I think you can’t do. At corner, it can go downhill very fast.

“Always being level-headed and being consistent is my main key this year, even with the highs and lows.”

Coach Danny Rocco thinks Hill got himself back on track in the spring. He came out of spring ball as one of the team captains.

“In order to make plays and play with confidence, it starts with doing your job,” said Rocco. “And I’ve seen a much more consistent presence of that with Nijuel here this summer.”

Ironically, now it’s going to be Hill’s job to be the veteran leader of the secondary. With 22 games played and 15 starts, he’s the only Delaware defensive back who’s started a game for the Hens.

Of the top 13 defensive backs listed on UD’s roster only Hill and backup safety Andres Castillo are juniors. The rest are sophomores or freshmen.

“I’m embracing the new role — especially how Coach Rocco is saying we all have to step up into new roles this year,” Hill said on Monday. “I like it, just having young guys come to me and asking questions because they know I’ve been through it. I’m just telling them all my experiences on what to do and what not to do.”

Clearly, getting overconfident is one thing Hill knows to avoid now. He says he spent a lot more time in the off-season studying film.

“When it is going good, I want to just stay level-headed,” said Hill, “and always have that chip on your shoulder, no matter what.”

School of hard knocks

With quarterback Pat Kehoe starting all 12 games last season, it’s easy to forget that he’d played a total of just one last-minute series in his first three years as a Blue Hen.

Kehoe admits it took a little time in the season opener against Rhode Island last fall to get used to playing for real again.

“I distinctly remember last year,” said the senior. “It was the first pass and the first hit I took. Especially with it being my first start last year, I hadn’t been hit in four years. That kind of helped me settle in — once I took one in the teeth.”

Returning starter or not, Blue Hen quarterback Pat Kehoe knows he’ll have some opening-night jitters on Thursday. But he’s also excited to take the field with the Hens’ new-look offense. UD sports information/Mark Campbell

Kehoe hopes it doesn’t take another jolt like that to get him going on Thursday. Returning starter or not, he knows he’ll have some opening-night jitters.

But he’s also excited to take the field with the Hens’ new-look offense.

“I just think people are going to enjoy it,” said Kehoe. “I think we’re going to get the ball in a lot of people’s hands. I think it’s going to be something that the crowd likes to watch.”

Work in progress

Thursday’s night game will be something of a debut for Delaware Stadium’s renovated home stands.

But, while the home stands are ready for the game, the rest of the project is still very much of a work in progress.

Only the framework for the Whitney Athletic Center — which will sit behind the home stands and be topped off by a new pressbox — is standing right now.

Rocco said how far along the project looks depends on your vantage points.

“The project is looking close to being completed if you’re standing on our sideline,” he said. “If you’re standing on the other sideline, you recognize there’s a long way to go.

“But I think for the purpose of playing the game, and the atmosphere within the game, we are exactly where we want to be.”

With his team young and inexperienced this season, Rocco says there is a comparison between the building of the stadium and the construction of a new squad.

“I think, in the first two seasons, we’ve laid a really strong foundation to our program,” said the third-year UD head coach. “But you don’t live in the foundation. You have to rise up above that foundation.”

Extra points

Rocco said starting defensive end Brandan Hall is questionable for the opener after missing the last few weeks of practice with an injury. … Delaware has just seven seniors listed in its starting lineup. … Highly-regarded true freshman receiver Jourdan Townsend is listed as the Hens’ starting punt returner.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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