HARRISONBURG — Danny Rocco’s rebuild at Delaware is off to a smooth start thanks in large part to his defense.
And when Delaware hosts No. 1 James Madison on Saturday, it’s going to need that unit to play well in order to pull an upset.
The Blue Hens are giving up 14.7 points per game. They’re in the top 16 nationally for scoring defense (11th), total defense (16th, 280.7 yards per game) and run defense (fifth, 62 yards per game).
The first-year coach, who spent the previous five seasons at Richmond, brought his entire defensive staff, including coordinator Chris Cosh, with him to Newark, Del.
When a new staff arrives, it’s not often its players understand how to fit within the freshly installed system, but Rocco said it didn’t take long for his defense to pick up the 3-4 scheme.
“You could say our personnel is actually suited a little better for the style that we brought with us here,” Rocco said. “So sometimes when you start anew, you want to be able to make sure you match your philosophies to your personnel. Well, in this particular case, we really did feel like our philosophies and defensive structure did fit our personnel even though they weren’t playing in that style of defense.
“That’s a big, big part of it.”
Cosh joined Rocco at Richmond to replace Bob Trott, who left to work on Mike Houston’s staff at JMU. But before Cosh teamed up with Rocco, he had stops at 11 different FBS schools, which included stints working for Bill Snyder at Kansas State, Ralph Friedgen at Maryland and Nick Saban at Michigan State.
Rocco added the continuity between him, Cosh and the rest of the defensive coaches has helped speed up the learning process for the players.
Delaware’s defense yielded only three points to in-state foe Delaware State in the season opener. Cornell managed just 14 points against the Blue Hens in Week 3 and they limited Virginia Tech to just two offensive touchdowns during a Week 2 loss in Blacksburg.
The Hokies registered 81 rushing yards and were 3-of-11 on third-down conversions against Delaware.
“I’m pleased with where we’re at in this stage of the season,” Rocco said.
Houston said the success Delaware is having on defense starts with its players.
Senior linebackers Charles Bell, a preseason All-Colonial Athletic Association selection, and Troy Reeder, a Penn State transfer, are team captains and lead the unit with 24 and 17 tackles, respectively.
Defensive lineman Bilal Nichols has 2.5 sacks.
“You look at the defense and they’re a big, strong bunch up front,” Houston said. “You look at their front seven, especially their box players, and physically they’re an imposing-looking group.”
On Saturday against Maine, JMU was held scoreless in the first quarter for the first time since December of 2015, though the Dukes managed to rattle off 21 unanswered points in the third and fourth quarters to pull away from the Black Bears.
JMU quarterback Bryan Schor has thrown for 938 yards and 12 touchdowns this season while the Dukes’ rushing attack is fifth-best in FCS, averaging 298.8 yards per game.
Rocco said his defense that has started strong would be tested this week.
Last year when JMU played at Richmond, the Dukes posted 47 points against Cosh’s defense.
“It’s very challenging and very difficult,” Rocco said of trying to slow JMU. “I think the bottom line is you got to be able to control the run game.
“I’ve recognized that they do so many other things very well that sometimes it forces you to take your focus off shutting down the run. And when that happens to you, you just get carved up. So you’ve got to maintain some element of control with their run game and force them to be efficient doing other things, which they do very well. But it’s still a better model to play them.”
Delaware had this past Saturday off, so Rocco and company have had a few extra practices to work on the Dukes.