Four guys who could be “the guy” for Delaware football in 2019
Days after his team’s season ended on a three-game losing streak and even less time after he let go of his offensive coordinator, Head Coach Danny Rocco delivered his team’s post-mortem in a mostly somber tone, ruminating over the injuries that spoiled his team’s midseason surge and stressing the need for his coaching staff to adjust its system to fit its personnel.
But when asked midstream about the dynamic of coaching what will be a young 2019 Blue Hens squad, Rocco seemed genuinely excited and unloaded a patented methodical and inspirational speech.
“It’s refreshing. I really do embellish that part of the challenge,” Rocco said. “When you talk about really building your culture and your foundation, it’s obviously something that takes time. There is a certain eagerness with youth that is, I think, contagious and we have a lot of that.”
With more than a dozen starters leaving the team, including eight on defense and the offense’s three leading receivers, shaping the 2019 roster into a playoff contender will be Rocco and his staff’s toughest test yet. He already set the goal of becoming Delaware’s first back-to-back playoff team since the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
“There’s a lot of guys that know they have a chance to be the guy,” Rocco continued. “When you kind of turn the clock back a year a lot of guys probably didn’t feel they had a chance to be the guy as they looked in their position rooms and said, ‘Eh this isn’t going to be my year.’ And it’s the absolute worst mindset that a student athlete can take into a season, that he has no chance. Life’s too short. The time is now. So if you want to have a good day, make it today. That’s the way some of the younger players do look at this opportunity now.”
Who will be the guys in 2019? Here are four lesser-known players that could emerge.
Justis Henley Freshman Cornerback
With starting cornerbacks Tenny Adewusi and K.C. Hinton departing, Rocco was asked about who may start on the outside of the defense. Henley’s name was one of the first offered.
“Justis Henley, we think is as gifted a corner as we’ve had in a long time,” Rocco said. “Played minimal this year. Played more than a redshirt would play, because we always felt that his day might come this year.”
Henley played in four games as a true freshman this season, seeing time as Delaware’s fourth cornerback behind Adewusi, Hinton and redshirt sophomore Nijuel Hill. His name was never called for more than a few drives at a time, a testament to how the defensive backfield rebounded after poor showings against Richmond, Elon and Towson.
Coined a “natural athlete” by Rocco, Henley had offers from Air Force and Army coming out of Philadelphia’s North Penn High School. There, he was a star wide receiver, returned kicks and played cornerback and safety. North Penn also developed a wildcat package so Henley could operate the read option and occasionally pass.
A glance at his high school highlight tape reveals a player with elite speed and quickness, a knack for high-pointing the ball in traffic and soft hands.
— Delaware Football (@DelawareFB) December 20, 2017
The numbers back that evaluation. Henley intercepted 16 passes in his final two seasons at North Penn, tallied 1,933 receiving yards and scored 24 total touchdowns.
He’s impressed Rocco and the Delaware coaching staff from the outset.
“We come into summer camp, very first day of camp we film all of our drills,” Rocco said. “So you watch all of our DBs do all of our drills and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at Justis. Look how natural he is. Look how smooth he is. He’s low in his back pedal, his knees bend, he’s got a good base, he can flip his hips, he’s tall, he’s long. He’s a great receiver in high school, he can catch the ball.’
“So you’re looking at all of these things and it’s like day one stuff. And it’s like so many other things. He’s got the skillset to play the position very well. Now you have to teach him and train him. But if you don’t have the skillset then you have a lot you have to overcome. So those are the kinds of things that we see in him that excite us.”
Having played in only four games, Henley will be a redshirt freshman next season.
Drew Nickles Freshman Linebacker
Nickles, who already contributed in 2018 as a true freshman, will only see his role expand with three of Delaware’s four linebackers graduating, in addition to versatile edge player Armen Ware.
His first significant action came at KAT outside linebacker when Colby Reeder missed the game against Cornell with an injury. In that game, Nickles had two solo tackles and half a sack.
By midseason he was a key rotation piece, playing on many third downs as an edge pass rusher, often with his hand in the ground. He finished the season with 11 tackles, a sack and a quarterback hit.
As Delaware undergoes a defensive “transformation,” as Rocco termed it, Nickles could slide back to outside linebacker or play on the defensive line, which will likely feature more four-man fronts.
The Blue Hens were impressed by their young linebackers all year.
“It’s been cool to bring those guys along,” Troy Reeder said during the season. “It’s a role that we’ve all pretty much taken on. Had a lot of time through walk throughs and meetings to mentor those guys and try to help their progress and a lot of those guys have been thrown into the fire through camp and have done a really good job.”
Kedrick Whitehead Freshman Linebacker
Whitehead is another freshman linebacker that was thrown into the mix this season. Appearing in 11 of 12 games, the Middletown High School alumnus recorded 14 tackles, three tackles for loss and an interception, which came against New Hampshire.
Throughout the season he backed up fellow Delawarean and Hodgson Vo-Tech grad Ray Jones at Bandit outside linebacker, a position that requires a player who can cover slot receivers in space and approach the line of scrimmage to play the run. Rocco routinely calls it the most difficult position in Delaware’s scheme.
In limited action, Whitehead delivered on his promise in that role. Perhaps his best performance came in the second half against James Madison after Jones was ejected for targeting. Whitehead made four tackles (two and a half resulted in a loss) and had a sack.
Whitehead, who played linebacker and running back as a Cavalier, is a candidate to slide back to safety, where Delaware will have to replace starters Nasir Adderley and Malcolm Brown.
Bryce de Maille Freshman Tight End
Charles Scarff demonstrated how valuable a receiving threat can be at tight end in Delaware’s scheme. The redshirt senior dominated the red zone, scoring seven touchdowns in Delaware’s first eight games, before the entire offense settled into a late season swoon.
He came one touchdown shy of setting the school record for most touchdown receptions by a tight end in a season and a career.
De Maille, a freshman from Frederick, Md. out of Oakdale High School, will likely get the first chance at filling Scarff’s role.
In limited action across 11 games, de Maille caught three passes for 24 yards, including a touchdown grab in traffic against Lafayette in week two. His low number of targets was more a product of the names stacked ahead of him on the depth chart than his ability.
“Bryce de Maille is a guy who can line up anywhere and catch the ball,” Rocco said.
— Delaware Football (@DelawareFB) September 8, 2018
He saw snaps at both tight end and h-back, the role Owen Tyler primarily handled this season.
De Maille is built more like Tyler than Scarff, but he is probably a little quicker than both of them. De Maille, who played mostly wide receiver in high school, could be lined up all over the field week-to-week to exploit the best matchup.
Scarff was crucial to moving the sticks as one of quarterback Pat Kehoe’s favorite targets. Of his 43 receptions on the season, 30 resulted in a first down or touchdown (a team-high) and nine came on third down (second to Vinny Papale’s 10).
Can de Maille become the go-to move the sticks guy?
He seems to have the aptitude. In two high school seasons, de Maille caught 104 passes for 1,674 yards and 27 touchdowns. He turned down 22 scholarship offers out of high school to now have the opportunity to become the next in the line of successful Delaware tight ends, following the likes of Scarff, Nick Boyle and Ben Patrick.