Holveck: Delaware lacks a much-needed offensive identity

JMU 2
Courtesy of Delaware Athletics
Caleb Ashworth (66) and Charles Bell (5) combine for a Delaware tackle against James Madison.

BY
Executive Editor

At the end of last season, with his team left out of the playoffs and his offense having unraveled at Villanova, Delaware Head Coach Danny Rocco offered this thought.

“We need to define what we want to do offensively,” he said.

It applies again going into this offseason, with Delaware having made it one step further in the process of reclaiming its past glory as a national title contender, but ultimately falling short.

Delaware lost to James Madison, the gold standard of the CAA, 20-6 in the first round of the FCS playoffs on Saturday. The appearance ended a program-record eight-year playoff drought.

The Blue Hens finished their season 7-5 and on a three-game losing streak, after winning five straight to open conference play. The final three games were marred by inconsistent defensive play, but more alarmingly completely inefficient offensive performances.

Five thoughts on Delaware’s 20-6 loss to James Madison in the opening-round of the playoffs

The offense failed to establish either the run or the pass Saturday against JMU, and in turn couldn’t work one off of the other. Delaware went three-and-out on its first six possessions and gained a total of nine yards on those series, largely keeping it on the ground. Once the running game was silenced, Delaware became one dimensional and its passing attack didn’t fare any better.

Pat Kehoe completed 13 of 32 passes for 116 yards, threw two interceptions, and was sacked five times. His completion percentage for the season dipped below 50 percent for the first time following the game. Delaware’s offensive line struggled to provide him time to throw, but Kehoe also shares blame for being unable to buy more time for his receivers to uncover downfield by sliding and stepping up in the pocket.

In the final four games of the season following Delaware’s 40-36 upset win against Towson, there wasn’t a clear idea of what the Blue Hens wanted to do offensively. Over the season, Delaware vacillated between an 11-personnel team (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) that could throw to all corners of the field and a 12-personnel team (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) that wanted to play old-school power football.

The latter is the brand of football Rocco first brought to the Blue Hens a season ago, but without a bell cow running back down the stretch and perhaps to open next season with Kani Kane set to graduate (plus the seldom-used Thomas Jefferson and Kareem Williams will also depart) should Delaware open things up?

In an era dominated by quick-strike offenses and RPOs (run-pass options), it’s fair to wonder whether Delaware would have been better served trying to get the ball out of Kehoe’s hands quick and working playmakers like Joe Walker and Vinny Papale more in space. At times this season Delaware’s play calling felt unimaginative, especially compared to the creativity on display at other collegiate programs across the country.

But, it’s also important to note that personnel often dictates what a team can scheme up and how willing its coaches are to take chances.

Kehoe will return for his redshirt senior season, but may have to win the starting job again in camp with redshirt freshman Nolan Henderson and freshman Anthony Paoletti perhaps ready to vie for playing time.

Dejoun Lee returns with Andre Robinson (the duo combined for 56 yards on 18 carries against JMU) in the backfield. The pass-catching unit will be young but talented with options like Tylan McElhenie, Gene Coleman, Austin Haverstrom and Bryce de Maille taking on larger roles with the departures of Walker, Papale, Jamie Jarmon, Charles Scarff and Owen Tyler.

Can the offensive skill players make enough progress to enable the coaching staff to dream up a sophisticated offensive scheme tailored to their strengths?

UD vs. Villanova 11/17 - Louis Mason
Louis Mason/THE REVIEW
Nolan Henderson (14) and Dejoun Lee (33) are among the offensive contributors returning for the 2019 season.

As Delaware embarks on an offseason of self-assessment, development and recruiting it will be important for the team to build an on-field identity for an offense that made improvements in 2018, but still lagged behind the best of the CAA and the nation.

Year-after-year James Madison wants to spread you out defensively and run the ball with a steady dose of zone read, a rotation of able running backs and a mobile quarterback.

“They just want to line up and run the ball at you and dare you to stop it,” safety Malcolm Brown said of JMU’s offensive approach before the game.

If you can stop it, as Delaware did Saturday, they pull it out and move the ball with quick-hitting RPOs, slants and hitches out of a spread formation, taking advantage when a safety drops down into the box and corners back off in coverage. They can play other ways if they need to, but the identity — a spread, run-first team — is clear.

What Delaware’s 2019 identity is, today I don’t know. But it’s what the Blue Hens need to figure out in the next eight months, before they next take the field at Delaware Stadium.

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