Young or not, Hens eye playoffs again

Blue Hen coach Danny Rocco is the first to admit that it’s difficult to predict when his talent will start producing victories on the field. UD sports information/Mark Campbell

NEWARK — This is Danny Rocco’s team now.

Three years of recruiting mean that much of Delaware’s football roster is made up of players that he and his staff brought in.

So while the Blue Hens lost a talented senior class to graduation, the third-year UD head coach looks at this year’s squad and likes what he sees.

“I think my most basic commentary is that we are young and talented,” said Rocco, who has a record of 14-9 at Delaware. “I think we have a lot of talent on our football team.”

But Rocco is also the first to admit that it’s difficult to predict when that talent will start producing victories on the field.

Delaware, which opens the season by hosting Delaware State on Thursday at 7 p.m., will be hard-pressed to come out of its first five games with more than three wins. That’s because the Hens host FCS powerhouse North Dakota State on Sept. 14 before going to major-college Pitt on Sept. 28.

If the Hens can then hit their stride over the final seven contests — all Colonial Athletic Association matchups — they’ll have a shot at making the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2003-04.

Delaware, though, also has a lot of work to do before it reaches that level.

Returning starting quarterback Pat Kehoe — having recovered from a knee injury that slowed him late last season — appears rejuvenated in the Hens’ up-tempo attack. UD sports information/Mark Campbell

“It really goes to these skill positions as new guys are stepping into roles,” said Rocco. “In my mind there’s no doubt that many of them will be household names in our league. I just don’t know if it will be this year.

“The last thing I said to the team tonight was, this team will get better every day, every week,” Rocco added after the Hens’ final preseason scrimmage on Tuesday. “It’s because of its youth and guys are stepping into roles.”

Clearly there’s reason to think Delaware’s offense will be much improved over the injury-plagued group that limped to the finish line last fall.

New offensive coordinator Jared Ambrose has brought a different approach with him from Towson and returning starting quarterback Pat Kehoe — having recovered from a knee injury that slowed him late last season — appears rejuvenated in the up-tempo attack.

Delaware returns four starting offensive linemen, led by third-team all-CAA center Marion Farinella,

Returning part-time starter DeJoun Lee was solid at running back last year with former Penn State transfer Andre Robinson and Old Dominion transfer Will Knight (Smyrna) expected to be just as much a part of the picture. The biggest question mark right now is the hamstring injury that’s kept Robinson on the sidelines for the last week or two of preseason.

Cam Kitchen

There will be a number of new names at wide receiver and tight end, although players like Gene Coleman, Thyrick Pitts and Bryce De Maille have gotten some playing time early in their careers.

On defense, the only place Delaware has experienced starters is on the line where senior defensive tackle Cam Kitchen is being counted on as a leader. Everywhere else, though, at linebacker and in the secondary, the Hens have new starters.

Still, Rocco remains optimistic about those positions as well.

Old Dominion transfer Will Knight (Smyrna) is part of a promising running back group. UD sports information/Mark Campbell

Delaware was picked to finish fifth in the CAA and was ranked No. 23 nationally in the coaches’ poll. But the bottom line is that the success of the Hens’ season will be judged by whether they make the NCAA playoffs again.

Last year, when Delaware lost to James Madison in the first round, it marked the Hens’ first FCS tournament appearance since reaching the national title game in 2010.

“I think for the program, it’s obviously what we want to be able to do,” said Rocco. “We want to be a perennial postseason team. It’s been my experience that getting in is the trick. Once you get in, so many things can happen.

“The ability to make that cut is really definitive. What we did last year, getting in, kind of got the gorilla off the back. I’m excited about that accomplishment and I think our players have more of a confidence that this is an attainable part of their goal-setting.”

The 2019 Blue Hens

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK: Pat Kehoe (Sr., 6-4, 235) was a surprise starter a year ago but was the clear choice for Rocco this time around.
Last fall, the big left-hander had his best games in the middle of the season but trailed off after suffering a couple injuries, most notably to his knee. Kehoe ended up throwing 17 TD passes with nine INTs while averaging 172.92 yards per game. Kehoe has looked sharp in the Hens’ new offense, which seems to be more dynamic rather than a grind-it-out approach.

Former Smyrna High standout Nolan Henderson (So, 6-0, 185) is also expected to get on the field after doing some good things in the Villanova game. Delaware has been working on creative ways to get the ball in Henderson’s hands in preseason. Anthony Paoletti (Fr., 6-2, 210) will be the third-stringer.

RUNNING BACK: DeJoun Lee (Jr., 5-7, 185) might not have much height but he proved to be a tough runner last season when he finished with 606 yards and a pair of TDs. Andre Robinson (Sr., 5-10, 215) looked like a former Penn State recruit at times when he was named the Most Improved Offensive Player of spring practice.

And nobody would be surprised if former Smyrna High star Will Knight (Fr., 5-11, 215) makes a big impact in his first year after transferring from Old Dominion. Delaware will also have a fullback in its formation with veteran Owen Tyler (Sr., 6-4, 235) getting the starting nod in the opener.

WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END: The Hens lost five of their top-six pass catchers from a year ago to graduation, with Joe Walker and Charles Scarff both making it into NFL camps. Gene Coleman (Jr., 5-11, 185), with nine catches for 149 yards, and Thyrick Pitts (So., 6-3, 200) are the most experienced wideouts.

Former William Penn High standout Chichi Ameche (Jr., 6-1, 195) is getting his first chance as a starter while Delaware is also excited about the size that Penn State transfer Dae’lun Darien (Jr., 6-4, 215) brings to the position.

At tight end, the Hens will miss the production of Scarff, who caught seven TD passes last fall. But Bryce De Maille (So., 6-3, 235) did see playing time as a true freshman last year.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Delaware was happy that center Mario Farinella (Sr., 6-2, 305) was granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA. He helps solidify an offensive front that also returns starters Connor Lutz (Sr., 6-6, 305), David Kroll (Jr., 6-7, 315) and Chuka Ezeuzoh (Sr., 6-5, 315). Jamil Gilmore (Jr., 6-4, 290) steps into the starting spot at right guard.

Overall it’s a veteran group with eight of the top 10 linemen either seniors or juniors.

DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE LINE: The Hens’ defensive front is the one place where they have experience on that side of the ball. Cam Kitchen (Sr., 6-3, 285), Frank Burton (Jr., 6-2, 255), Brandan Hall (Sr., 6-2, 245), and Caleb Ashworth (Jr., 6-4, 250) each played in all 12 games last season.

Dom Covatto (So., 6-4, 300), who has been limited because of injury, is slated to step into one of the starting defensive tackle spots. Ashworth and Burton each posted three sacks a year ago.

LINEBACKER: With Colby Reeder sitting out this season after underdoing back surgery, Delaware is largely untested at linebacker. Drew Nickles (So., 6-3, 225) and Johnny Buchanan (So., 6-0, 230) did see playing time as backups last year but projected ‘Bandit’ starter Joe Zubillaga (Fr., 6-1, 205) will be seeing his first college action.

Veteran Tim Poindexter (Jr., 5-11, 195) has been switched from safety to Bandit while Sal Mauro (Jr., 6-2, 255) is now considered a ‘KAT’ linebacker.

SECONDARY: After sending a pair of defensive backs (Nasir Aderley, Tenny Adewusi) to NFL camps, Delaware has some work to do rebuilding its secondary. Cornerback Nijuel Hill (Jr., 5-10, 185) has had some ups and downs in his career but played well in the spring and has 22 games of experience under his belt.

Former Middletown High standout Kedrick Whitehead (So., 5-11, 190) moves from linebacker to safety with Justis Henley (So., 5-11, 175), who played some as a true freshman, manning the other cornerback spot. Newcomer Noah Plank (Fr., 6-2, 210) brings some good size to safety while transfers Riah Burton (So., 6-1, 195) from Virginia and D’Juan Moore (So., 5-9, 175) will add depth.

SPECIAL TEAMS: There’s a lot to like about the Hens’ special teams with veteran Nick Pritchard (Sr., 5-10, 225) on the FCS Punter of the Year watch list. He averaged 42 yards per punt last fall, with 10 kicks over 50 yards and 16 inside the opponents’ 20 yard line.
Jake Roth (Sr., 6-0, 205) returns for his fourth year as Delaware’s kickoff specialist after posting 37 touchbacks on 62 kickoffs last season. He also hit a 48-yard field goal in the playoff game against JMU. Roth will take over full-time place-kicking duties with newcomer Ryan Coe (Fr., 6-3, 225) waiting in the wings.

Delaware Football
2019 Schedule
AUGUST

29-DELAWARE STATE 7 p.m.
SEPTEMBER
7-At Rhode Island* 7 p.m.
14-NORTH DAKOTA STATE 1 p.m.
21-PENNSYLVANIA 1 p.m.
28-At Pittsburgh TBA
OCTOBER
12-At Elon* 2 p.m.
19-NEW HAMPSHIRE* 1 p.m.
26-RICHMOND* 1 p.m.
NOVEMBER
2-At Towson* 2 p.m.
9-ALBANY* 1 p.m.
16-STONY BROOK* 1 p.m.
23-At Villanova* 1 p.m.

2018 Results
5-3 CAA, 7-5 overall
L-Rhode Island* 19-21
W-Lafayette 37-0
W-Cornell 27-10
L-North Dakota State 10-38
W-Richmond* 43-28
W-Elon* 28-16
W-New Hampshire* 38-14
W-Towson* 40-36
W-Albany* 21-16
L-Stony Brook* 3-17
L-Villanova* 21-42
NCAA FCS Division I playoffs
L-James Madison 6-20

  • CAA game.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.
Facebook Comment