It’s playoffs or bust: Blue Hens set lofty goals for 2016

Coach Dave Brock is confident that second-year starting QB Joe Walker, above, and his receivers are much improved. (UD sports information/Mark Campbell)

Coach Dave Brock is confident that second-year starting QB Joe Walker, above, and his receivers are much improved. (UD sports information/Mark Campbell)

NEWARK — There are no mincing words for Delaware’s football players this fall.

There’s one goal — and one goal only — for the Blue Hens in 2016.

“It’s playoffs or bust,” said senior safety Ryan Torzsa. “It’s all we really care about, it’s all we talk about, it’s all we think about. All we’re striving for is to make the playoffs.

“As talented a team as we are, there’s no reason why we’re not a playoff team.”

There was a time when it was assumed the Blue Hens would be talking about making the playoffs before every season.

But this is 2016. The reality is that Delaware, which opens the season on Thursday by hosting Delaware State at 7 p.m., hasn’t been in the NCAA FCS playoffs since reaching the national championship game in 2010.

That continues to be the longest such streak in the playoff-era of Delaware football.

What was already one of Delaware's deeper positions got even better when former Salesianum star Troy Reeder (So., 6-2, 250) transferred from Penn State, where he started 11 games last fall.

What was already one of Delaware’s deeper positions got even better when former Salesianum star Troy Reeder (So., 6-2, 250) transferred from Penn State, where he started 11 games last fall.

More than that, though, the Hens were just 4-7 last fall. That record hasn’t sat well with the players for the past nine months.

“We’ve been thinking about it the whole off-season,” said senior running back Jalen Randolph. “But we’ve been focusing less on the four wins and more on being the playoff team that we should be. Coach (Dave Brock) has talked about that the whole offseason.

“I enjoy it when he says that because I know that’s the goal — that’s what we should be. That’s just the expectation. I don’t look at it as pressure at all.”

Certainly, last year’s struggles weren’t a complete surprise.

Fourth-year coach Brock came to Newark determined to build the program back from the ground up. He wanted a well-constructed roster that would keep the Hens competitive year-in and year-out.

While he would have liked to win a lot more, Brock knew that last season might be difficult with an extremely young roster.

Blue Hen head coach Dave Brock, who is coaching the quarterbacks this year, works with his QBs in practice.

Blue Hen head coach Dave Brock, who is coaching the quarterbacks this year, works with his QBs in practice.

It’s also worth noting that Brock’s two predecessors, Tubby Raymond (2001) and K.C. Keeler (2008), both posted four-victory seasons as well.

Now, after losing just a handful of starters while getting back some key players, Brock is truly excited about this squad. It doesn’t matter that Delaware was voted to finish only seventh in the Colonial Athletic Association this fall.

In Newark, the official slogan is, ‘The future is now.’

“I look at it as we should be a playoff team,” said Brock, who has a record of 17-18 in his three seasons at Delaware. “You set goals that are realistic. I’m really excited about the team, I’m really excited about the players, the people that we have, and I’m excited about the opportunities.

“I think when you stand up in front of 95 guys and you look them in the eye every day, you’ve got to tell them the truth. Kids know. I want them to understand exactly what the belief system is of the coach. I told them, ‘If you believe it, don’t shy away from it.’

Delaware struggled mightily at receiver last year because of both injuries and inexperience. Top wideout Diante Cherry (Jr., 5-11, 185), with 65 catches for 577 yards in his career, has looked much more consistent in preseason.

Delaware struggled mightily at receiver last year because of both injuries and inexperience. Top wideout Diante Cherry (Jr., 5-11, 185), with 65 catches for 577 yards in his career, has looked much more consistent in preseason.

“We’re not making a prediction,” he added. “I’m telling you how I feel. We’ve got to go out, play 11 games and make it so.”

The Hens’ strengths and weaknesses are clear-cut.

They’re good at both running the ball and stopping the run. A year ago, Delaware was ranked 17th nationally in both rushing offense (219.4 yards per game) and rushing defense (123.5).

That’s why the Hens held huge advantages in time of possession in several games, ranking 13th nationally after holding onto the ball for an average of 33 minutes per contest.

But Delaware’s Achilles’ heel was just as obvious. The Hens’ were ranked dead last in FCS passing yards at an abysmal 67.1 yards per game.
Brock, though, is confident that second-year starting quarterback Joe Walker and, just as importantly, his receivers, are much improved.

“I certainly think he’s much more accurate,” Brock said about Walker. “I certainly think he’s got a much better grasp of what we’re trying to do offensively.”

Delaware’s struggles last year, at times, were painfully real. In one four-game stretch, the Hens were shut out twice and scored just six points in another contest.

They were blanked 19-0 in helping Rhode Island to its only win of the season.

On the other hand, Delaware beat two playoff teams (William & Mary and New Hampshire) and all but beat a third (James Madison).

“We could have been a playoff contender last year very easily if we just finished games,” said junior center Brody Kern. “We were right there. (But) it wasn’t anybody’s fault besides our own that we weren’t in the playoffs last year.

“The CAA has us being seventh in the conference. That’s fine. We’ll prove it. We don’t need the hype, we don’t need anything like that. We just need us.”

The 2016 Blue Hens

Here’s a look at the Delaware football team, position by position:

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK: In his first season of college football, Joe Walker (So., 6-3, 205) completed just 70-of-158 passes for 605 yards with six interceptions against just one TD pass. But coach Dave Brock, who took over as QB coach in the off-season, thinks a lot of the youngster’s issues were caused by him having to become a starter too soon.

Walker has looked like a more polished passer in preseason and can also be more of a threat running the ball. He was the squad’s third-leading rusher with 422 yards and three TDs last fall.

Former Rutgers transfer Blake Rankin (Sr., 6-4, 210)), who started the season opener last fall, gives Delaware depth at the position with left-hander Pat Kehoe (Fr., 6-3, 225) also in the picture now after redshirting last season.

RUNNING BACK: Delaware is pretty excited about its backfield with the return of both Wes Hills (Jr., 6-2, 205) and Jalen Randolph (Sr., 6-1, 230) from season-ending injuries in 2015. Also a special teams standout, Hills might be the best athlete on the team. Hills has run for 1,121 yards and nine TDs in his first two-plus seasons.

With 1,098 yards and 15 TDs, Randolph is also a proven running back. Then there’s Thomas Jefferson (So., 6-2, 210), who emerged as the CAA Co-Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015 when he collected 890 yards and seven TDs.

Eric Patton (Jr., 5-11, 220) gives the Hens enough depth that 934-yard rusher Kareem Williams (Jr., 5-11, 205) plans to redshirt this season.

WIDE RECEIVER: Delaware struggled mightily at receiver last year because of both injuries and inexperience. Top wideout Diante Cherry (Jr., 5-11, 185), with 65 catches for 577 yards in his career, has looked much more consistent in preseason.

The Hens also expect good things from former Indian River High QB Jamie Jarmon (So., 6-2, 205), who has lost weight and worked hard at becoming a better pass catcher in the off-season. Rutgers transfer Charles Scarff (Jr., 6-5, 250), who only joined the team a few days before the start of preseason camp, has shown signs of being a difference-maker in scrimmages. The big target saw legitimate playing time as a tight end at Rutgers last fall.

Also pushing for playing time is a group that includes Vinny Papale (So., 6-1, 200), Ricky Emerson (Jr., 6-2, 190) and DeAndre Davis (Jr., 6-0, 195).

Delaware feels pretty good about its ability at tight end where Brandon Whaley (Jr., 6-4, 240) has looked like a regular pass target in preseason. Ryley Angeline (So., 6-3, 220), Owen Tyler (So., 6-2, 235) and William & Mary transfer Alec Sheez (Jr., 6-5, 255) also figure prominently at the position. Veteran tight end/fullback Kyle Yocum (Jr., 6-2, 235) has proven himself as a blocker.

OFFENSIVE LINE: A preseason all-CAA pick, veteran Connor Bozick (Sr., 6-5, 315) — who can play either tackle or guard — is the marquee player up front. But the Hens return a total of four starters on the offensive line. Also back are guard Will Lewis (Sr., 6-5, 280), tackle Jake Trump (Jr., 6-7, 280) and center Brody Kern (Jr., 6-2, 280), a third-year starter.

Mario Farinella (So., 6-2, 290) is slated to start at the other guard spot with depth on the line coming from several untested players who have been in the program for a few years.

DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE LINE: Techically, tackle Blaine Woodson (Jr., 6-2, 290) is the only returning starter on the defensive front. The former CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year is already a third-year starter with 22 starts under his belt. But the other projected starters have all seen plenty of playing time. That group includes tackle Bilal Nichols (Jr., 6-5, 295), end John Nassib (Jr., 6-7, 260) and end Cam Kitchen (So. 6-2, 240).

Backup tackle Grant Roberts (Jr., 6-0, 280) has played in 23 career games while converted linebacker Armen Ware (So., 6-1, 220), now an end, played in 10 games as a true freshman.

LINEBACKER: What was already one of Delaware’s deeper positions got even better when former Salesianum star Troy Reeder (So., 6-2, 250) transferred from Penn State, where he started 11 games last fall. He’s slated to start alongside middle linebacker Charles Bell (Jr., 6-1, 240) and strongside linebacker Anthony Jackson (Jr., 6-1, 220), who are both veteran starters. Bell (96 tackles), a preseason all-CAA pick, and Jackson (53) were the Hens’ top two tacklers last season.

Jalen Kindle (Jr., 6-1, 220), who has been sidelined by injury in preseason, gives the Hens essentially a fourth returning starter while Larry Spears (Jr., 6-0, 245) has seen action in 22 games.

SECONDARY: There’s probably more competition for playing time in the secondary than at any other place on the field for Delaware. Cornerbacks Justin Watson (Jr., 5-9, 180) and Nasir Adderley (So., 6-0, 185) along with safeties Ryan Torzsa (Sr., 6-2, 210) and Ray Jones (So., 6-0, 195) are all returning starters.

But cornerback Malcolm Brown (So., 6-1, 200), who missed last season with an injury, played in ll games as a true freshman in 2014. Safety Simba Gwashavanhu (Sr., 6-2, 210) is a former starter  while cornerback Tenny Adewusi (So., 6-0, 190) and safety K.C. Hinton (So., 5-9, 195) were both regulars as true freshmen last fall.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Hens are hoping to give returning kicker Frank Raggo (So., 5-9, 175) more work than they did last year when he was just 16-of-17 on PATs. And while he did boot the last-second, game-winning field goal against William & Mary, Raggo was just 10-of-16 on field-goal attempts.
At punter, Delaware had to find a replacement for record-setter Eric Enderson, who decided not to use his final year of eligibility. The Hens picked up a one-year punter in North Carolina State transfer Will Stephenson (Sr., 6-3, 195).

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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