Smyrna star QB Henderson joins Rocco’s first group of Blue Hen signees

NEWARK — Danny Rocco was ready to take Nolan Henderson, sight unseen.

Henderson, Smyrna High’s standout quarterback, verbally committed to Delaware before Rocco was hired as the Blue Hens’ football coach in December.

But the more Rocco saw of Henderson, the more he liked him.

Rocco kept an eye on the youngster when Henderson was honored at the All-State banquet at Dover Downs two weeks ago.

“I walked out of there extremely impressed with my quarterback,” said Rocco. “He is a leader. I think everybody in that building recognized his accomplishments and recognized the kind of person that he is.”

Smyrna high quarterback Nolan Henderson with his mother Cassandra, sister Alexis and his dad Mike Henderson at signing day. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Now Rocco will get to see what kind of college QB Henderson can develop into after the state Offensive Player of the Year was officially announced as part of Delaware’s 14-player recruiting class on Wednesday.

Rocco said those 14 signings came out of 15 scholarship offers, a percentage he hadn’t reached before in his 11 previous seasons as a head coach at both Liberty and Richmond.

Ten of those 14 recruits are offensive players, including three receivers and a pair of tight ends. But, appearances aside, Rocco said the position breakdown of his first Delaware class was mostly coincidence.

“I wanted us to recruit the best possible student-athletes that were out there,” said Rocco. “I wanted to be able to recruit a group of young people that were highly motivated to achieve, both academically and athletically. As it played out, I think we got a really good group here.”

Rocco expects at least a few of the newcomers to push for playing time right away.

Braden Atkinson, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound tight end from Glenville, Pa., is the one recruit who will start college in the spring semester and take part in spring practice. He originally verbally committed to Wake Forest before deciding to stay closer to home.

Projected as an ‘H’ back, Atkinson had 90 catches for 1,110 yards in his career despite playing only two games as a senior at Boys’ Latin High due to an injury.

The Hens also inked a pair of big offensive linemen in 6-foot-6, 320-pound David Kroll (Reston, Va.), who originally verbally committed to Rocco at Richmond, and 6-foot-6, 310-pound Carter Lynch (Mt. Laurel, N.J.), who Rocco says a chance to contribute early in his career.

As for skill players, Henderson was the only quarterback in the class.

The passing game has been a sore spot for the Hens over the last couple seasons for various reasons. Junior Joe Walker has been a two-year starter at QB with sophomore Pat Kehoe really the only other quarterback back who’s been on the depth chart.

But after hiring his staff and then putting together a recruiting class, Rocco said he’s only starting to evaluate the players on the roster. He said that’s true of every position.

“Every position has a different set of things that needs to be mastered,” said Rocco. “We’ll come out of the spring with a better understanding as to where these guys are in those areas. And then we’ll start thinking more about, well, how many of these freshmen can come in here and buffer the roster.

“If we have to go and find a transfer at the end of the spring cycle, that’s my job. My job is to help the team win and figure out what the team needs.”

Henderson put up big numbers in leading Smyrna to its two straight DIAA Division I state titles. He threw for 5,321 yards over the last two seasons with 104 touchdown passes in his career.

Henderson is the first in-state quarterback in a UD recruiting class since Newark’s Eric Spiese in 2002.

If there was one drawback on Henderson, it was his relatively small stature at 6-foot, 170 pounds. Rocco, though, said he wasn’t concerned.
“I think if he was a little bigger, he’d be at Penn State or Michigan,” said Rocco. “He’ll get bigger.

“The more I was around him, the more I recognized that he has ‘it,’” Rocco added. “He has the intangibles that go into being able to perform and to lead.”

Rocco’s first Delaware recruiting class is interesting in that the group was signed only six weeks after he himself decided to join the Blue Hens.
Rocco, though, was able to use that as part of his sales pitch to recruits and their families.

“We were able to say, ‘This is a really big decision for you and your family,’” said Rocco. “‘I had to make a really big decision not too long ago. … I had a good situation, you have a good situation. You have options. This is why I did what I did.’

“I think, in doing that, it became very real. … They obviously believed in it and, ultimately they chose to become part of it.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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