Managing Sports Editor
Two years have passed since Delaware’s last conventional season opened in 2019, where the Blue Hens defeated in-state rival Delaware State 31-13.
Since then, the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to college athletics in 2020 and greatly limited the university’s athletic plans for the spring of 2021.
Amidst the pandemic and a never-before-seen spring football season, head coach Danny Rocco still found a way to return the Delaware football program to national prominence.
Coming off a 5-7 record in 2019, Rocco led the Blue Hens to an undefeated regular season and a Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Championship. Highlights of the regular season included a season-opening defensive shutout over Maine and the team’s first victory versus Villanova in ten years.
The win against the Wildcats sealed the conference championship and earned Delaware an automatic berth in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Playoffs this past spring, where expectations continued to be surpassed.
In the first round of the playoffs, Delaware hosted Sacred Heart at Delaware Stadium and earned their first playoff victory since 2010. In the second round, Rocco’s team traveled down to Jacksonville State and advanced once again.
The playoff run came to an end in the FCS semifinals versus the eventual runner-ups, South Dakota State. In the game, Blue Hens quarterback Nolan Henderson dealt with injuries, and the defense had no answer for the Jackrabbits, leading to a 33-3 loss that ended a perfect season in its tracks.
Heading into a fall season with a short offseason, Henderson returns as the team’s starting quarterback. According to Rocco, the progress Henderson made in the spring — his first full year as the starter — allowed his impact to the team to be better than ever.
“He made great strides in understanding how to protect himself better,” Rocco said during CAA Media Day earlier this summer. “He did a lot of things on the scramble and he was more aware this past spring than the year before.”
However, in the season-ending loss to South Dakota State, Henderson was sacked seven times, unable to complete a pass over 20 yards and forced out of the game temporarily for an injury after a sack.
“We have to sure up our protection,” Rocco said. “As last season went on, we had a couple injuries in the offensive line, and that affected our abilities to be effective in the run game and protect our quarterback.”
On the left side of the line, First-Team All-CAA tackle David Kroll and guard Stevon Brown return as starters. Center Mickey Henry returns for his redshirt senior season, while right tackle Ben Trent is back for his second season with the Blue Hens after transferring from Virginia the year prior.
The returners on the offensive line will play a large role into the running game, as Rocco noted. In the spring of 2021, the Blue Hens rushing attack opened strong, but struggled down the stretch.
Graduate student Dejoun Lee will return to spearhead the backfield after being named the 2021 CAA Offensive Player of the Year, amassing 564 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. During the offseason, there has been an emphasis from Rocco and offensive coordinator Jared Ambrose on having a deep backfield beyond Lee.
On the defensive side of the ball, all eleven starters return, including a secondary consisting of two First Team All-CAA selections — safety Kedrick Whitehead and cornerback Nijuel Hill. In Manny Rojas’ first season as defensive coordinator, the team was third nationally in scoring defense and fourth nationally in total defense.
“[Last year’s] eight games were our first eight games learning [coach Rojas’] new defense,” Whitehead said. “Having an understanding of our defense coming into a full season makes playing way easier and way faster.”
The excitement for the Delaware defense extends past the eleven returning starters, as linebacker Colby Reeder aims to play a full season for the first time since 2018. In his return midway through the spring, Reeder totaled 17 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks.
All over the field, there are positives to this fall’s Blue Hens football roster. But after a shortened offseason and an unorthodox spring season that extended into the FCS semifinals, coach Rocco decided it was best to take a few weeks off before jumping back into the offseason program.
“In today’s game, college football players train year-round, so I wanted to create a little more space between our last game of the season and the next time we started talking about football,” Rocco said.
Further, Rocco and CAA Commissioner Joe D’Antonio emphasized COVID-19 protocols as imperative to continue following into the fall season.
“As a conference, not much has changed in terms of how we will approach things during the year,” D’Antonio said of the CAA’s regulations this season. “We will continue to work extremely closely with our physicians and athletic directors to establish protocols that allow [our] student-athletes to compete in a safe environment.”
Following a record-breaking season amidst COVID-19 protocols, coach Rocco and the Blue Hens will once again look to navigate a football season during a pandemic while setting more records and making another national championship push.
The season opens up tonight on the road against conference foe Maine University at 7 p.m.