Rocco excited about changes ahead for Hens

Danny Rocco is 14-9 with one playoff appearance in his first two seasons as Delaware’s head coach. Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell

NEWARK — It doesn’t take much analysis to see that Delaware’s football team was better in the middle of the season than it was at the end.

A five-game winning streak for the Blue Hens was followed by three straight losses to finish the year.

Coach Danny Rocco, whose team lost to No. 6 James Madison, 20-6, in the first round of the NCAA FCS Division I playoffs on Saturday, thinks it had a lot to do with injuries.

Rocco thought some key late-season injuries really hurt Delaware.

“There are other teams that kind of struggled early, got healthy late and played their best at the end,” said the Hens’ second-year coach. “The five-game winning streak that we were able to experience was obviously the highlight — or the crescendo — of our season.

“I do feel that we were not quite at 100 percent on the back end. … That’s not really an excuse, it’s just a reality of how our season played out. But it’s concerning for me as the coach. You never want to end in that fashion. But in the same context, it does offer us motivation moving forward into the off-season.”

Clearly, there was a lot to like but also a lot for Rocco and his staff to fix after Delaware’s 7-5 campaign.

On the plus side, the Hens made the playoffs for the first time since 2010, posted back-to-back seven-win seasons for the first time since 2011, knocked off both the No. 5 and No. 10 teams in the country and still had a chance to win the Colonial Athletic Association title going into the final game of the regular season.

On the other hand, there was the three-game losing streak, a few bad losses and the fact that the Hens graduate a big senior class with relatively few underclassmen getting game experience.

The fact that the home stands at Delaware Stadium are being replaced with a more-modern structure in the off-season is only one reason Blue Hen football will look a lot different by next fall.

“I believe our foundation is set,” Rocco said as he met with reporters on Wednesday. “So I think there’s a lot of really positive things in place here. I think this senior class is responsible for us being able to take that next step.

“I truly do believe that the best is yet to come as we continue out into the recruiting cycle. … For our goals moving forward, we certainly would like to be able to represent again in the postseason and have that opportunity to be the first Delaware team to go to back-to-back FCS playoffs since 2003-2004.”

Here’s what Rocco had to say on a few of the main subjects surrounding Delaware’s program as it heads into the off-season:

• Who’s going to be next year’s quarterback?

Redshirt junior QB Pat Kehoe was one of the season’s biggest surprises.

A three-year backup, the 6-foot-4 left-hander revived the Hens’ dormant passing game and led Delaware to big wins over Elon and Towson — not to mention orchestrating a last-minute win at Albany.

Junior QB Pat Kehoe, who started all 12 games for the Hens this fall, was much more mobile before injuring his knee midway through the season. Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell

But Kehoe struggled in that season-ending three-game losing streak. He completed just 24-of-63 passes for 237 yards, no touchdowns, four interceptions and nine sacks in those three games.

Kehoe clearly didn’t have much mobility after suffering a partially-torn ligament in his right knee and wearing a brace for the last several games. He was also knocked out of the Villanova game and treated for concussion symptoms.

“Late in the season, when people rushed our passer, they had no concern about pass-rush lanes because they thought the quarterback was not going to escape,” said Rocco. “When you get to that point, it’s impossible to really establish pass protection.”

It was obvious, though, that Rocco still believes in Kehoe once he gets healthy again. The doctors have told Rocco that Kehoe should be able to just rehab his knee and won’t require surgery.

“Pat will be at his best,” said Rocco. “And I all think we have an image of what that will look like. Pat at his best is pretty good and certainly capable of leading this team.”

But Rocco also agreed that redshirt-freshman Nolan Henderson raised his stature by the way he played against Villanova after Kehoe got hurt. Henderson came out of that game with a high-ankle sprain and was sidelined against JMU.

He’s not expected to need surgery, however, as was first feared.

“There’s probably about 15 pictures captured on tape from that Villanova game that is very much attention-getting in terms of what he’s capable of doing,” said Rocco. “I think it’s a really good starting point.”

The Hens also like true freshman Anthony Paoletti, who saw more serious practice time last week because of all the injuries.

“He was kind of called up to the varsity in preparation for a playoff game,” said Rocco. “And he didn’t balk for a second during the course of the week.”

• Who’s going to be the offensive coordinator?

Rocco fired offensive coordinator Matt Simon on Tuesday. So now the question is not only who will replace him but also what kind of offense will they run.

On Wednesday, Rocco said he’s actually looking for someone who’s not necessarily locked into one system but somebody who can adapt to fit his personnel.

“It’s an exciting experience to kind of see who’s interested and just the wide range of applicants,” said Rocco. “I do think I’m looking for a body of work that does speak to having done the job — maybe even having done the job at this level.”

• Who’s going to play where on defense?

Of Delaware’s 22 starters on Saturday, only eight were underclassmen. And that includes just three on defense.

Outside linebacker Colby Reeder will be one of Delaware’s most experienced defensive players next season. Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell

Rocco, though, said he likes the Hens’ depth on the defensive front. He also said he’s considering using more of a four-man front next season than the 3-4 alignment that he’s favored.

Delaware used a four-man front successfully against JMU.

“We are really looking at transforming our defense,” said Rocco. “It’s personnel driven. We are deep in the ‘D’ line.”

Rocco said he’s looking forward to coaching a young team. He believes there’s a lot of talent on his roster.

“There is a certain eagerness with youth that I think is contagious,” said Rocco. “And we have a lot of that right now. There’s a lot of guys that know they have the chance to be ‘the guy.’”

Extra points

Rocco said he expects to sign 10-12 players on the early-signing day on Dec. 19. After graduating about 25 seniors, that would leave plenty of available scholarships for transfers. … Several UD players took advantage of the new NCAA rule that allows players to play in up to four games and still count it as a redshirt season. Sophomore receiver Thyrick Pitts was one of them. … Rocco spoke glowingly of secondary coach Nick Rapone, who has left the staff after one year. The former Blue Hen defensive coordinator and NFL assistant is expected to be taking another football job.

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