Last season marked an important breakthrough in Danny Rocco’s tenure as the head coach of the Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens. The program reached the FCS Playoffs in Rocco’s second year at the helm, ending a postseason drought of eight years—the longest such dry spell at Delaware since going 14 years between the 1954 Refrigerator Bowl and 1968 Boardwalk Bowl.
Delaware finished at or below .500 in each of the final three seasons before Rocco’s arrival in 2017, and in four-of-five seasons from 2012 through 2016. But the Blue Hens have finished on the right side of that mark in each of Rocco’s first two years.
“In FCS football, if you’re relevant on the last weekend of the season, and your team is together on Selection Sunday, you’ve positioned yourself where you need to be,” Rocco said at CAA media day in July. “That’s kind of a huge monkey off the back, having not been in since 2010 ... But we expect to be able to do more.
“Our kids have gained some confidence in their ability to break through. Now we’ve got to take that next step."
With Delaware back in familiar postseason territory, the next step is building on the positive trajectory to return to the title form of the previous decade. The Hens won a Div. I-AA national championship in 2003, and reached the title game in 2007 and 2010.
Contending in the FCS landscape starts with the loaded Colonial Athletic Association, and Delaware must replace some standout performers if it is to emerge from the deepest league in the country.
Head Coach: Danny Rocco (third year at Delaware, 14-9; 13th season overall, 104-51)
Offensive Coordinator: Jared Ambrose
Defensive Coordinator: Chris Cosh
2018 Record: 7-5 (5-3 CAA); lost in FCS Playoffs first round at James Madison.
2019 Preseason Poll: 5th, 162 points
You could spell Delaware with a capital D in 2018. The Blue Hens ranked 19th in the nation in scoring defense, limiting opponents to 21.5 points per game.
Generating 23 turnovers contributed to Delaware’s defensive success, but it needs new players to replicate production lost to the pros if the 2019 squad is to match that.
Linebacker Troy Reeder—who forced a pair of fumbles among his 131 tackles—is gone. The Los Angeles Rams are now getting a preview of what he can do at the pro level.
Similarly, cornerback Nasir Adderley—who picked off four passes in 2018—is just down the 110 in Carson with the Los Angeles Chargers. The West Coast’s gains leave two big spots for the returning Blue Hens to fill.
Nijuel Hill is a candidate to emerge in the secondary. Hill picked off two passes and broke up three a season ago. He’s the most game-experienced of the returning defensive backs. A couple of Power Five transfers—Riah Burton (Virginia) and D’Juan Moore (Kansas)—will vie for roles in the secondary.
The linebacker room is very much in flux. Ray Jones and Charles Bell are out, along with Reeder. Meanwhile, Troy's younger brother, Colby Reeder, will miss the season after undergoing back surgery this summer. The latter is perhaps the biggest hit to the unit if only because losing his 51 tackles (including four TFL) from a season ago was unexpected.
“We certainly lost a number of household names,” Rocco said. “But it doesn’t minimize the talent we had in behind those players. A number of these guys got a decent amount of work last year, a decent amount of reps on defense and special teams. Now, they’re going to have an opportunity to come into their own.”
Defensive line welcomes back the most veteran presence on that side of the ball. The trio of Cam Kitchen, Frank Burton III and Caleb Ashworth all made significant contributions up front, with the duo of Burton and Ashworth leading Delaware at three sacks a piece.
Few backfields anywhere in college football can match the depth Delaware has at running back. Lightning bug DeJoun Lee returns from a strong 2018 in which he racked up 606 rushing yards. Expectations are high for him in 2019, with Lee garnering Preseason All-CAA honorable mention.
Lee will run behind a group of blockers that includes two more Preseason All-CAA honorees in first team lineman Mario Farinella, and tight end Owen Tyler, who also adds needed depth to the corps of pass-catchers. Last year’s leading receivers—Vinny Papale (618 yards, six touchdowns), Joe Walker (670 yards, four touchdowns) and Charles Scarff—are all gone after having accounted for almost 1,200 of Delaware’s 2,341 receiving yards.
Returning quarterback Pat Kehoe will be on the lookout for new targets as the campaign progresses. One of them will be hard to miss.
Dae’Lun Darien is a transfer from Penn State, who played linebacker during his time in Happy Valley. Darien has the frame necessary to have been a linebacker in the Big Ten, at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds—but that’s also the kind of build customary of an NFL possession receiver, which is exactly what he will be for Kehoe and the Blue Hens.
All-CAA punter Nick Pritchard plays a key role in Delaware’s defense. The first team All-CAA preseason selection averaged 42 yards per punt in 2018, and pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 16 times.
Pritchard’s one key weapon returning to Delaware special teams; DeJoun Lee’s another. The elusive running back doubled up as a kickoff returner, handling the majority of the Blue Hens’ workload. His 47-yard return late against Towson last year proved critical in a Delaware win.
Delaware State, Aug. 29 (Thursday) | Watch Live: The Fightin’ Blue Hens have never lost the Route 1 Rivalry since its inception in 2007, winning the eight meetings by an average of 27 points per game.
@ Rhode Island, Sept . 7* | Watch Live: Rhode Island stunned Delaware in the 2018 season opener, 21-19. A would-be game-tying two-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter fell short for the Blue Hens.
North Dakota State, Sept. 14 | Watch Live: To deem a Delaware win over North Dakota State the program’s biggest victory since the 2003 Div. I-AA National Championship Game might be hyperbolic—but only slightly. NDSU comes to Delaware Stadium the reigning FCS champion, and winner of seven-of-eight titles since 2011. The Fightin’ Blue Hens lost to the Bison last September in Fargo, 38-10.
Penn, Sept. 21: Delaware’s penultimate non-conference game of the season has a CAA connection: Penn head coach Ray Priore is a graduate of UAlbany, and is the brother of Stony Brook head coach Chuck Priore.
@ Pitt, Sept. 28: The visit to Pitt marks Delaware’s fifth matchup with an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent since 2014. The Fightin’ Blue Hens seek their first win over an FBS opponent since knocking off Navy in a 59-52 shootout during the magical 2007 campaign.
@ Elon, Oct. 12: The bulk of CAA competition awaits Delaware coming out of the bye week, starting with a tough Elon team. The Fightin’ Blue Hens ignited their Playoff aspirations in 2018 with a 28-16 defeat of the Phoenix at home.
New Hampshire, Oct. 19 | Watch Live: Three interceptions, two forced fumbles, four sacks and a blocked kick highlighted Delaware’s 38-14 romp over New Hampshire on the road last season.
Richmond, Oct. 26 | Watch Live: Pat Kehoe threw for two touchdowns and the Delaware defense snagged a staggering five interceptions, building a 43-10 lead before cruising to a 43-28 win over Richmond in 2018.
@ Towson, Nov. 2 | Watch Live: Two of the CAA’s most electrifying, multipurpose players take center stage when DeJoun Lee and Shane Simpson are on the field in this potentially pivotal CAA showdown.
UAlbany, Nov. 9 | Watch Live: The Fightin’ Blue Hens drove 83 yards in the final two minutes-and-change, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 18 seconds remaining to win at UAlbany in 2018, 21-16.
Stony Brook, Nov. 16 | Watch Live: Stony Brook’s always-tough defense held Delaware to a season-low three points in last season’s meeting. The Seawolves boasted one of the nation’s stingiest defenses on both third downs and in the red zone; expect more of the same from them in 2019.
@ Villanova, Nov. 23 | Watch Live: The Battle of the Blue dates back to Grover Cleveland’s second term as president, with Delaware and Villanova first meeting in 1895. The Blue Hens have hit a rough patch in the rivalry over recent years, losing each of the last eight meetings.