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'Fall ball' prepping Blue Hens for spring football season

Kevin Tresolini
Delaware News Journal

Their seasonal switcheroo has left University of Delaware football players in the odd position of watching others’ college games on Saturdays and NFL tilts on Sundays when they would have been playing or practicing themselves.

But the Blue Hens have been engaged in football practices of their own for several weeks as they prep for their repositioned late-winter/early-spring schedule.

After having their 2020 spring drills end after one session in March when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, then their season moved from the fall to early 2021, players welcome the opportunity to play some football again.

Quarterback Nolan Henderson (14) awaits a snap from center during a recent Delaware football practice.

“We’re definitely ramping up just the way we would in the spring,” said quarterback Nolan Henderson, the Smyrna High graduate.

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The Hens are practicing Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, including some scrimmaging, and lifting weights Monday, Wednesday and Friday inside the recently opened Whitney Athletic Center. That concludes this week.

So far they’ve avoided the type of coronavirus calamity that has forced more than 60 college football games to be postponed or cancelled this season and caused Delaware’s basketball team to suspend practice Tuesday and cancel its first two games Nov. 27 and 28.

Delaware is slated to open the six-game Colonial Athletic Association schedule at home March 6 against Maine. Two nonconference games could still be added, with the start of 2021 preseason practice depending on when Delaware actually plays its first game, coach Danny Rocco said in a video media session Tuesday

“A lot of hard work has gone into the protocols, the discussions, the conversations, the education, so that we can continue to build and prepare for our spring season,” Rocco said before the 13th of Delaware’s 15 “fall ball” sessions after complimenting the “team effort” among UD officials, including medical and equipment personnel.

Coach Danny Rocco directs Delaware's football team during a recent practice.

Most of the football team has been on campus since early summer, allowing players to become well-indoctrinated in health and safety protocols and risk mitigation.

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“I think that gave us a fighting chance,” Rocco said.

At times, Delaware still has been missing players because of class, injuries or coronavirus-related isolation and quarantine, Rocco said.

As an example, Rocco mentioned how during one practice, Delaware had just four offensive linemen out of 15. The next practice, however, there were 10.

That’s an important position area as Delaware returns just one full-time starter in left tackle David Kroll. Mickey Henry, the St. Elizabeth High graduate, saw considerable late-season action at center in 2019.

“I really like who we have,” Rocco said.

That list features leading guard candidates Stevon Brown and Carter Lynch; Virginia graduate transfer Ben Trent at tackle; Howard transfer James Prince at center and guard; Dover High grad Bradly Anyanwu and Robert Nachtman at guard; tackles Ryan Last and Will Bowen, though they’ve both been hurt; and a strong freshman group.

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"They've done a really good job of having real good energy every day," senior running back Dejoun Lee said. ". . . They're ready to do a really, really big thing this spring."

Delaware has a new defensive coordinator in Manny Rojas, who returned to UD after directing the Lafayette defense in 2019. He was an All-Big South linebacker at Liberty in 2006, Rocco’s first season as head coach there, and then spent nine years on Rocco’s staffs at Liberty, Richmond and Delaware.

Freshman linebacker Dillon Trainer lines up in a recent Delaware football practice.

“Coach Rojas and our defensive staff have done an amazing job of having little tweaks and curveballs to make our defense a little bit more unpredictable,” said returning nose guard Frank Burton III, the William Penn High grad. “We have a lot of depth, we have a lot of guys that can do a lot of good things but we’re just switching our defense to a little bit more of an aggressive approach.”

That, Burton added, is an effort to get more pressure in the backfield. Delaware was last among FCS teams in sacks with six last year and had the fewest tackles for lost yardage (26) among all 665 NCAA football teams.

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 Delaware is employing both 3-4 and 4-3 sets in that attempt.

“We’ve adjusted some of our basic principles, fundamentals in how we’re playing our defensive front in terms of their style of play,” Rocco said. “In doing that we will be more attacking, we’ll be more penetrating, we’ll be a little more in the backfield.”

Rocco said he’s been most impressed with the play of his secondary.

Nolan Henderson hands the football to Dejoun Lee in a recent Delaware football practice.

Colby Reeder, the 2017 CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year out of Salesianum, missed the 2019 season after back surgery and is not practicing this fall but hasn’t been ruled out for the spring, Rocco said.

The 2021 spring season will not count as a year of eligibility for all players, which is why CAA rival Towson decided to not compete because of injury concerns. But Delaware plans to treat it as a normal season, Rocco said.

“I think every year your seniors deserve an opportunity to give it your best shot so this is not a moment where you back off of that,” said Rocco, knowing some graduating players won’t return in the fall. “ . . . I can see utilizing more players but I do think that your focus is on finding a way each week to put a roster together, then go out there and give [the team] the best chance to win.”

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.