HARRISONBURG — Danny Rocco has rebuilt quickly before.
When he became the head coach at Richmond prior to the 2011 season, he took over a team that didn’t win a Colonial Athletic Association game in 2010. In his first season at the school, the Spiders went 8-3, won a share of the league title and Rocco was a national coach of the year finalist.
This offseason, Rocco departed Richmond for Delaware, which comes off consecutive 4-7 campaigns.
“It’s always been my mindset that you owe it to the seniors on your football team to position yourself to be in the hunt,” Rocco said. “I think this is a team that could position itself to be in the hunt.
“And this league is a beautiful league. I’ve seen the preseason favorite come out and run away with it and I’ve also seen the sixth, seventh or eighth team in the preseason poll win it at the wire.”
Rocco said his Blue Hens will likely be picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack when the league’s preseason poll is released.
James Madison will play its first CAA road game of 2017 at Delaware on Sept. 30. Last fall, the Dukes beat Delaware 43-20 in Harrisonburg, and also won at Richmond to beat Rocco’s Spiders 47-43.
So far, Rocco said the transition into his new job has gone smoothly.
During the spring, Delaware focused mostly on the installation of Rocco’s offensive and defensive systems.
“I have upward of 10 coaches of support staff and personnel that joined me here from Richmond,” Rocco said. “And there’s a philosophical upside to that in terms of being able to implement your program and your system with an understanding for everyone.
“That has allowed us to come in here and get off to a good start.”
Fontel Mines, who initially followed Rocco from Richmond to Delaware, left the Blue Hens in the spring to join Mike Houston’s staff as inside receivers and tight ends coach at JMU.
The most drastic change for the Blue Hens comes on defense as Rocco has installed his 3-4 scheme.
“Defensively, we’re uniquely different with the style,” Rocco said. “This was one of those what-came-first questions. But our personnel fits this 3-4 defense.
“Now, would we have gone to it anyway? Well, we were leaning in that direction, but once we got here and analyzed our personnel — me and [defensive coordinator] Chris Cosh — and started to see it. We think a good many of them will be better in this defense than the one they were playing in a year ago.”
The Blue Hens bring back first-team All-CAA linebacker Charles Bell, who started all 11 games last season and racked up 94 tackles. Bell and fellow inside linebacker Troy Reeder will anchor the defense, according to Rocco.
Reeder, a Penn State transfer in his second season at Delaware, was second on the team in tackles behind Bell with 63 total tackles last year.
“They are what you’re looking for,” Rocco said. “Maybe even more specifically in our defense because you want to be strong up the middle.”
On offense, Rocco will rely on Delaware’s massive offensive line and skilled running backs.
Six-foot-seven right tackle Jake Trump and 6-foot-2, 290-pound center Brody Kern are back. Returning running backs Wes Hills and Thomas Jefferson each rushed for at least 700 yards last season. Hills scored seven rushing touchdowns and Jefferson scored six.
“We have good depth and good numbers in the O-line and then we have a good group of running backs that have some experience and upside, so I think I would have led with that mindset regardless of who I had at quarterback,” Rocco said. “[Richmond quarterback Kyle] Lauletta is a quarterback that I know a lot about and we all know he’s a really good quarterback, but if Kyle was our quarterback here, I’d still be saying the same thing.
“I’d be leaning on that offensive line and on that run game as we try to establish our identity.”
At quarterback, Delaware returns Joe Walker, who started 10 games last season. Walker threw for 954 yards and three touchdowns in 2016. Rocco also landed Appalachian State transfer quarterback J.P. Caruso, who is eligible for this fall.
“We’re excited for this season, and we’re excited for our future,” Rocco said.