As University of Delaware football opener looms, lineups keep changing

Kevin Tresolini
Delaware News Journal

Coach Danny Rocco has amended his depth chart three times in the last five days, he said Monday.

With University of Delaware football personnel receiving two more COVID-19 tests early this week while also subjected to contact-tracing assessments, Rocco and his staff will likely have to make more alterations.

That’s how football will be during a pandemic with Delaware set to play Maine on Saturday at noon at Delaware Stadium in its first game since closing the 2019 season at Villanova.

Delaware running back DeJoun Lee moves the ball upfield in Delaware's 21-17 loss at Delaware Stadium in 2019.

“I think this team’s got something special going on so we’re just ready to show everybody what we got,” running back Dejoun Lee said Monday.

It’s the first of seven winter/spring games Delaware has scheduled, replacing the canceled 2020 season. The only fans permitted will be family members of players and coaches.

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“I think we recognize how close we’re getting to being in that moment,” Rocco said as his fourth season as UD coach neared. “But there’s still a lot things to navigate.

“Some of them are just the traditional game-week/first-week-of-the-season checklist items that are always important to do. Others are more specific to the culture that we’re in here, the climate that we’re in here, with the COVID and the protocols and the do’s and the don’ts.”

It’s very likely Delaware will be missing several key players. Who they may be remains to be seen, and the Blue Hens may not even know whether or not they’ll have a certain player until game day.

In addition, a player seemingly in the clear may, a few hours later, be forced to the sidelines because of a positive test by a teammate, roommate or girlfriend.

“We’ve got several guys that were starting maybe two weeks ago as we were going through camp that will not play,” Rocco said.

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It’s why Rocco has been preaching the value of depth throughout the lead-in to this unusual season, because Delaware will certainly have to rely on backups. He has also developed versatility by having players try different positions.

At the same time, Rocco said, “if any of us lose seven offensive linemen to contact tracing it’s unlikely we’re going to be able to play a football game.”

Coaches have also juggled different roles just in case one of them is suddenly absent for the game.

Delaware defensive back Kedrick Whitehead moves in on Penn receiver Tyler Herrick at Delaware Stadium in 2019.

Safety Kedrick Whitehead said players have adjusted to the new norm and are ready to tackle whatever challenges come their way.

“Just having that mentality of next man up is very important, especially at a time like this,” the Middletown High graduate said. “We all train to win, train hard each and every day, whether it’s during the season or during the offseason, so we have full confidence in all the guys on our team.’’

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This will be Delaware’s first game against Maine since its 31-17 victory over the Black Bears in 2017, a game played at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland rather than on Maine’s Orono campus. Before that, Maine had won four straight over Delaware.

Delaware receiver Gene Coleman II fights off Maine's Jason Matovu in the second quarter in Portland, Maine, in 2017.

The two didn’t meet in 2018, when Maine was CAA champion and reached the semifinals of the FCS Tournament and Delaware also made the NCAA playoffs. After that season, coach Joe Harasymiak left for the University of Minnesota, where he is now co-defensive coordinator.

Offensive coordinator Nick Charlton was elevated to the head-coaching position. In 2019, Maine went 6-6 overall and 4-4 in the CAA. Delaware was 5-7, 3-5.

With no 2020 season and the fluid nature of 2021 spring rosters, “You know less about your opponent now than you’ve ever known about your opponent,” Rocco said last week, especially for the opener.

But each school still has some of the same coaches – and their philosophies – since their last meeting and 2019 film provides plenty of insight. In it, Delaware will see that returning Maine quarterback Joe Fagnano threw for 17 touchdowns as a freshman, when he started six games.

“Delaware is always a well-coached, physical team. They got some great players on film,” said Charlton, who singled out quarterback Nolan Henderson and Whitehead.

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.