5 ingredients for a successful spring as Delaware football season nears

Kevin Tresolini
Delaware News Journal

Every August, voyeurism comes into vogue.

Stationed along the sidelines of most University of Delaware football practices, I’ll regularly jot onto a large, white notepad – yes, some of us still use those – the jersey numbers of who is playing where for the Blue Hens as they go through the grind of preseason camp.

The starting left guard. The backup bandit linebacker.

Along with that, there would be some notations of, perhaps, dazzling catches by wide receivers, defenders forcing a turnover and coaches saying something stern, instructive or witty.

Delaware coach Danny Rocco (right) and defensive line coach Levern Belin encourage players during their win over New Hampshire on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

It’s always particularly educational and entertaining to be stationed near defensive line coach Levern Belin.

Part of those observational efforts are to just feel organized and knowledgeable, to monitor who is playing well and rising or falling on the all-important depth chart. That information sparks curiosity, fuels questions for coach Danny Rocco and leads to tweets, lists – freshmen to watch, top newcomers – and other stories.

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Of course, there was no practice last August with COVID-19 leading to the cancellation of the 2020 season. Delaware has now been practicing since Feb. 5 for its repositioned spring football season, which kicks off March 6 at Delaware Stadium against Colonial Athletic Association rival Maine.

COVID-19 protocols prevent outsiders from attending practice these days, which is perfectly understandable. Players, coaches and those associated with the team are kept within the closest thing to a bubble possible to limit possible spread of the virus. It does proliferate easily, as Delaware’s men’s lacrosse and basketball teams have recently learned while having to pause and cancel games.

Rocco provided his first public glimpse of how practice is going, 2½ weeks into the four-week lead-in to the first game, on Tuesday in a video session with the media.

“Holistically, we’ve got a good roster. We’ve got a solid roster,” Rocco said. “But we do have a couple of positions that we’re just not really sure about due to some of the COVID protocols as to what our lineup would be or what our depth would be at those positions.

“But they’re excited to play. It feels like it really has been forever.”

With Rocco’s assessment in mind, and without benefit of personal observation, here is a venture at five things Delaware must do well for a successful spring:

1. Be ready to juggle and be deep

COVID-19 means players a team is counting on could be suddenly absent, perhaps even in large numbers across a position area.

If one player gets a positive test, and they are assessed regularly, he’s out for an extended period. So might those with whom he has been in contact.

As Rocco pointed out Tuesday, contact-tracing factors extend off the team as well, to roommates, friends and family, illustrating the importance of vigilance. In fact, he said most instances of players contracting the virus have been traced to non-football situations.

Delaware quarterback Nolan Henderson (left) and receiver Jourdan Townsend celebrate their connection on a 17-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson, Md. , in 2019.

“It’s not going away,” Rocco said. “I’ve been very proud of how our student-athletes have managed it and dealt with it in terms of we haven’t had any major volume. Now we’ve had a pretty consistent reality that a guy or two tests positive weekly, and we’ve been able to contain it that way. That’s why we’re really confident that nothing’s really happening when they’re here around each other or else those numbers wouldn’t be that random like that.”

Delaware will lose key players at crucial times, and others must step in and perform, perhaps even at a less familiar position.

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Opportunity has never been so grand, especially for younger players whose timetable may have been more toward future contributions.

The time, instead, may be now.

The fact that the spring season does not count against a player’s eligibility allows coaches to dig deeper than they normally might into their roster.

They’ll have to.

2. Play well on the offensive line

Offensive success truly does start up front. Delaware’s ability to score points and move the football will depend on the line’s ability to pave the way for its runners and protect the quarterback, an area where it needs to be better than during the 5-7 2019 season.

Delaware returns only one full-time starter on the offensive line in tackle David Kroll. Center Mickey Henry, the St. Elizabeth High alum, stepped in late in the 2019 season.

The addition of Howard transfer James Prince, who can play center or guard, has been a boost. Similarly, graduate transfer tackle Ben Trent from Virginia has brought valuable experience. Tackle Carter Lynch appears poised to take on a greater role. Stevon Brown, Robert Nachtman and Jaysen Ellison are prospective guards.

Delaware offensive linemen James Prince III (77), Robert Nachtman (70) and Braden Clark (74)  during a recent practice.

Delaware has a new offensive line coach in Bryan Stinespring, who brings impressive credentials to the important post, including 25 seasons at Virginia Tech.

“I feel good about what we have,” Rocco said.

“The most interesting thing about the offensive linemen: We have four true freshmen that can play,” Rocco said, mentioning Brock Gingrich, Lance Schwartz, Braden Clark and Patrick Shupp.

3. Run the football effectively

It sounds like Football 101. Offensive success often begins with moving the ball on the ground.

But this is also where Delaware has a major hole to fill after the stunning announcement by Will Knight that he would seek a transfer. He still not has said where he is going.

Delaware running back DeJoun Lee gets around the outside for a touchdown in the first quarter against Villanova at Delaware Stadium in 2018.

Delaware has a proven returnee in Dejoun Lee. But he also handles return duties quite well and needs to be spelled.

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That duty comes from the likes of the Khory Spruill, who has shown flashes of his potential, red-shirt freshman Quincy Watson and true freshman Marcus Yarns, who arrived from Parkside High in Salisbury, Maryland, with impressive credentials.

4. Get tackles in the backfield

Delaware was dead last among FCS teams in sacks with six in 2019. The Hens had the fewest tackles for lost yardage (26) among all 665 schools that play NCAA football.

Even now, it’s still shocking and just as appalling. It must be rectified.

The defense is now in the hands of coordinator Manny Rojas, though the defensive philosophy is still Rocco’s. Rojas was a captain and All-Big South linebacker at Liberty in 2006, Rocco’s first season as coach there. He later served on Rocco’s coaching staffs at Liberty, Richmond and Delaware before leaving to become defensive coordinator at Lafayette in 2019. Rojas returned to replace Chris Cosh earlier this year.

Rocco has credited Rojas with allowing Delaware “to become more versatile, do more things,” he said. “We have more ways to address and to solve problems. And he’s doing it with an awful lot of enthusiasm.''

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Just like on offense, a defense’s success largely comes down to its performance on the line and Rocco spoke enthusiastically about that unit’s potential Tuesday.

He called the defensive line “one of the deepest positions on our team,” with Frank Burton III, Artis Hemingway and Tommy Walsh likely starters. That is critical considering the heavy substituting that often takes place there due to formational changes, fatigue and potential for injury.

Colby Reeder, the playmaking defensive end/linebacker out of Salesianum School who hasn’t played in a game since 2018 due to injuries, is expected to play this spring, Rocco said, but not in the opener versus Maine.

Find motivation from within

So far, just families of players have been permitted for Delaware athletic events in recent weeks because of COVID-19 protocols.

Delaware has been selling football tickets to previous season-ticket holders in the hope of having some fans for games. But they were informed by email Thursday that no fans may attend the Maine game "due to the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases among students on the UD campus."

Delaware's Tim Poindexter (left) and Drew Nickles converge on Albany's Alex James in the second quarter of Delaware's 21-17 loss at Delaware Stadium in 2019.

There were 154 positive tests on campus through Wednesday this week, according to the coronavirus tracker on Udel.edu, 20 more than the previous high the week before Thanksgiving last year. The rise reflects the start of second-semester classes Feb. 15. 

The seating capacity of Delaware Stadium is now 18,309 after the recent renovation of the West Grandstand and construction of the Whitney Athletic Center. If UD does later permit limited crowds to ensure social distancing, even a gathering of 10, 20 or 25 percent could provide some atmosphere, though nothing like a normal Saturday.

Such crowd limits do include everyone inside the stadium, including players, coaches, referees, cheerleaders, game personnel etc.

For now, players must rely on each other to summon some of the excitement that would normally come from the seats. That'll be critical in a physical, emotional game of football.

Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at ktresolini@delawareonline.com and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.