MANAGING SPORTS EDITOR
During the second quarter of the annual Blue-White spring game on May 6, quarterback Joe Walker found wide receiver Joey Carter for an apparent 14-yard completion, but officials ruled Carter was out of bounds. Head coach Danny Rocco, who stood in the center of the field overlooking the scrimmage –– by himself, 20 yards behind the nearest player –– ran to the sideline, looked at the official and pointed to the ground. The call was changed. First down, offense.
At halftime, Rocco grabbed the microphone and addressed the several thousand fans in attendance. He thanked them for their support, handed out a variety of offseason awards to his players and announced the team’s captains for the year.
He was in control. He was honest, patient and calculated. He has a vision for Delaware football –– a vision to return the program to its winning ways. The 56-year-old was hired on Dec. 13 after five seasons as Richmond’s head coach.
“It’s been a very smooth and relatively seamless transition,” Rocco said.
Rocco brings with him “nine or 10” assistants who’ve worked with him over his 11 years as head coach. Prior to Richmond, the Huntingdon, Pa. native spent six seasons as head coach at Liberty University.
He takes over a program that Dave Brock led from 2013 until his firing midway through the 2016 season. Following Brock’s departure, the Blue Hens went 2-3 under the leadership of interim head coach Dennis Dottin-Carter.
“Everything that these players are hearing, they’re hearing it differently because we have a different way and a different system of communication, so since I was able to bring so many people with us, we have a real consistency of message,” Rocco said.
Rocco leads a roster that will return the majority of its impact players. One of the most notable changes the team will undergo is transforming its defensive formation from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Rocco was first introduced to the 3-4 as an assistant with the New York Jets in 2000. For the last 17 years, it’s been his primary defensive formation.
“In FCS football, we’re seeing more spread offenses than conventional pro-style offenses and when you’re in a 3-4 defense with three D-linemen, it’s a lot easier for your outside linebackers to deploy themselves, to remove themselves from the box and cover down these formations,” Rocco said. “You have a chance to be a lot more symmetrical and balanced in the 3-4.”
He highlights the linebackers as a position group that is likely to directly benefit from the change as players move from the defensive end position to the linebacking group. As a member of the Jets staff in 2000, Rocco and his team drafted defensive end John Abraham, who became a outside linebacker in several 3-4 defenses, appearing in five pro bowls.
“I think the 3-4 gives us a lot more opportunities to show the offense some different looks, which keeps them on their toes, lets us be more flexible with our game plan,” linebacker Troy Reeder said.
Reeder points to senior defensive lineman Bilal Nichols as one player to show signs of improvement in the new defense, as well as Nasir Adderley, who will move from cornerback to safety.
Reeder is a captain for this coming season, along with fellow linebacker Charles Bell, offensive lineman Brody Kern and running back Wes Hills.
Hills leads a talented running back group that also features Thomas Jefferson and Kareem Williams. Rocco said his team will have a “run-first personality”, but will need to be balanced. He named Walker as the team’s starting quarterback after the spring game.
“Holistically this spring, we’ve made significant strides and improvements,” Rocco said in reference to the offense. “I think Joe [Walker] and Pat Kehoe have done a nice job of learning the offense, making good decisions with the football and distributing the ball to open guys and being willing to take what the defense gives them.”
Now finished with spring practice, Delaware has just under four months until their season opening matchup at home versus Delaware State. They’ll travel to Blacksburg, Va. for the second game of the season to take on a talented Virginia Tech squad that finished 16th in the final 2016-2017 NCAA top 25 poll.
“I think what you have to do as a coach is you have to be able to study the schedule and then you’ve got to be able to communicate that this is a great schedule, regardless of what it is,” Rocco said. “You’ve got to be able to look at it, formulate some strategies that will allow you to come back and tell your team that it’s a perfect schedule.”
Delaware will have six home games and five road games in 2017. NCAA FCS champion James Madison visits Newark Sept. 30 and Rocco’s former team, Richmond, pays a visit Oct. 21.
Speaking rhetorically, Rocco asked what comes first: a successful team or an engaged fan base? He concluded the two go hand in hand, both of which the Blue Hens fanbase have not seen in recent years.
“Our fans love Delaware football and we are in a moment right now where we are in search of some joy and as a coach, nothing brings more joy to your life and to life of your student-athletes than winning,” Rocco said. “Winning is joyful. For your fan base, when you’re able to make that turn where you’re winning and you’re winning on a consistent basis, it brings a lot of joy to your community and your culture and your fan base. That’s what we need right now.”