Rocco feels fans’ excitement as Blue Hen debut nears

NEWARK — Danny Rocco has been on the sidelines at Delaware Stadium for a game only once before.

That was in 2013 when his Richmond football team edged Delaware, 46-43, on a touchdown with just four seconds left.

Rocco didn’t have too many people in the stands cheering for him that day.

“Well, my mom and dad were at the game,” he joked. “They said some nice things to me.”

But Rocco figures to get a much warmer welcome from the Blue Hen faithful on Thursday night when he debuts as Delaware’s coach in UD’s 7 p.m. season opener against Delaware State.

After the program went 36 years without breaking in a new coach, Rocco will be the Hens’ third new head coach since 2002. (Not counting Dennis Dottin-Carter, who was Delaware’s interim coach for the final five games of last season).

New head coach Danny Rocco knows a lot of Blue Hen fans are anxious to see Delaware start winning again. Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell

Rocco knows there’s a lot of Blue Hen fans anxious to see Delaware start winning again.

“We were out here last night for the pep rally,” he said on Monday. “It was just a little taste, I think, of what this place really can be like — and certainly has been like.

“I think the gameday environment in college football is extraordinarily important. I think that, for the student-athletes, it’s a real validation and statement of support. And I know this university has a lot of pride in its athletic department and its programs and its history. I’m excited to be on that home sideline and to be part of it.”

The Hens are 7-0 all-time vs. DelState. That includes a onesided 56-14 victory a year ago.

The players, though, understand that moments like these carry a little more weight than a typical season opener.

“I think there is a little bit of a spark right now — and has been since Coach Rocco arrived,” said junior linebacker Troy Reeder. “Guys have bought in immediately. We really feel like we have a chance to start something big.

“I think I’ve recognized and some of the older guys have recognized … at some point with Coach Rocco here, these guys are going to win a national title. Probably more than one. But I have two years and a lot of guys only have one year. We want to be part of the group that makes that happen and starts things off the right way.”

“I think we have a lot to prove,” said senior center Brody Kern. “It’s about showing everyone who we are and how much we’ve changed and how this team has developed since last year. … Like Troy said, we’re here to show you that this product has improved.

“I mean we hope to bring back the soldout stands. We want to bring Delaware football back.”

Of the five full-time head coaches Delaware has had since 1940, the last four have all won their first games. The last one to lose his debut was future Hall of Famer Bill Murray, who’s Hens were edged by Hampden Sydney, 7-0, in ‘40.

But, as much as Rocco appreciates Delaware’s history, he’s also someone who tries to just live in the moment.

On Monday, he still felt like he had a lot of things to accomplish before he can be excited about Thursday night.

“I enjoy the moment,” said Rocco. “I enjoy the moment of running out of the tunnel, I enjoy the moment of taking the field, as opposed to the anticipation.

“So I’m excited and I certainly look forward to being in those moments. But, until we’re in those moments, there’s a lot of work to do. … Your gameday preparation is right up until kickoff. There’s always something you could, should and need to be doing to prepare yourself to be at your best in those moments.”

QB has something to prove

If Rocco is the man of the moment on Thursday night, then Joe Walker may be the No. 2 person under the microscope.

Blue Hen junior quarterback Joe Walker is trying to get his career turned around after Delaware has gone just 8-12 in his first 20 games as a starter. Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell

The Hens’ junior quarterback is trying to get his career turned around after Delaware has gone just 8-12 in his first 20 games as a starter.

Certainly, Walker has earned Rocco’s trust. The first-year coach recently named Walker one of six team captains.

“In my world, it started in the spring,” said Rocco. “There was this reality of last season and the results and the statistics that maybe offered an evaluation of a player.

“But, when we came here in the spring, he threw it much better than I thought he was going to throw it. That was encouraging.”

While Walker improved, Rocco also thinks the addition of Appalachian State transfer J.P. Caruso over the summer “got everybody’s attention.”

“Everybody had their antennas up realizing that we’re going to do what we need to do to find ways to put a successful product on the field,” said Rocco. “What Joe did was he responded. And what more can you ask for from your student-athletes?

“I try to be as open-minded as I can be. … I try to base my decisions on what I see. And, I saw Joe respond at a high level and maybe earn back some of the trust that he’s had with his teammates. I’m encouraged with that.”

Walker’s teammates say they see a difference in him.

During a preseason scrimmage, Walker and Kern got in a brief shouting match after a play. On Monday, Kern said it was no big deal, but did show how Walker has become more of a leader.

“I think his confidence has skyrocketed just with the success that he’s had during this camp,” said Kern. “He knows that he’s got five ‘O’ lineman that are going to have his back no matter what. Whether he throws a touchdown pass or a ‘pick,’ we’re going to pat him on the back and tell him good job. He has nothing to worry about.

“Without a doubt, he deserved that,” Kern said about Walker becoming a captain. “Just the changes he made and the more vocal he became, he deserves that. He’s a different person.”

Extra points

Rocco said he expects junior running back Kareem Williams to play on Thursday after being sidelined in camp with a broken finger. He and junior Thomas Jefferson are list as co-starters… Rocco said that junior receiver Vinnie Papale has been fully cleared after having knee surgery last year. He’s also expected to start … Delaware has won eight of its last 12 season openers. … Polytech High grad Mark Bonnie is Delaware’s backup kickoff specialist.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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