Football preseason notebook: Blue Hens enter opener with new-look defense, options at QB

Managing Sports Editor

Delaware won its 2022 football season opener at Navy, its first game under Head Coach Ryan Carty, on the back of a stifling defense littered with experienced tacklers.

After the Blue Hens pulled out the 14-7 win in Annapolis, MD, their offense got up to speed with Carty’s spread system, but the defense remained the backbone of the team, finishing the season third in total defense and second in pass defense in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).

Delaware lost many of the veteran players who made its defense reliable a season ago, including linebacker Johnny Buchanan and safety Kedrick Whitehead Jr., to expiration of eligibility or to bypass of extra eligibility. Carty and Defensive Coordinator Manny Rojas have graduate defensive end Chase McGowan as one of the few regulars returning. 

With the parade of new faces in line for greater playing time on ‘D,’ it’s where we begin The Review’s 2023 overview of Delaware football.

The Defense

For all the roster turnover that Delaware has experienced on this side of the ball, it is still the position group of three of the Blue Hens’ four captains: McGowan, senior defensive lineman Ethan Saunders and senior linebacker Dillon Trainer. Leadership is not lacking in this unit. It is an unproven one, though, especially in the secondary.

In Rojas’ base scheme of three down linemen, the Blue Hens are known to play a high volume of defensive backs behind three or four linebackers. With Whitehead in the NFL on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Noah Plack now a grad transfer at UConn, Delaware expects steps forward at safety from junior Ty Davis and senior Nic Ware. Freshman safety KT Seay pushed for time with the starters in preseason camp and could see action early, interspersed with fellow safety Alex Villas, a senior in his second season at Delaware after transferring from Stetson University.

As for the linebackers, Trainer, West Chester University grad transfer Jackson Taylor and graduate Mateo Vandamia figure to be called upon as starters. Taylor was a three-year starter for the Golden Rams, making waves in Division II with his 262 career tackles, including 39 for loss with 11 sacks.

Freshman linebacker Gavin Moul is a factor in the Hens’ two-deep as well. Providing depth with a more experienced background is Stonehill College senior transfer Marje Mulumba, a 2022 All-Northeast Conference Second Team linebacker.

Perhaps the defensive position in which Delaware received the greatest gains by transfer is cornerback. With Justis Henley’s college football career completed and Amonte’ Strothers a transfer departure to Buffalo, the Blue Hens remade their CB room via the additions of grad transfer Tyron Herring (Dartmouth College) and sophomore transfer A’Khoury Lyde (Wisconsin). Herring and Lyde appear primed to start at two corner spots, though Lyde’s youth may make him a frequent rotational player. Additionally, Delaware brought in another Ivy Leaguer at corner in Harvard University grad transfer Khalil Dawsey, who earned Honorable Mention All-Ivy last year.

Not to be overlooked at CB amid the new starting hopefuls is graduate Jared Duncan, the Wilmington native who originally transferred to the Blue Hens from Morgan State University. Duncan, in his fourth season with the Hens in 2022, appeared in nine games with two tackles. He may well see increased game action this fall with his hard-hitting nature and knowledge of the defense.

Projected to serve as Delaware’s starting defensive linemen are end McGowan, junior Old Dominion tackle transfer Keyshawn Hunter, and senior end Jack Hall. Hunter offers Football Bowl Subdivision-pedigree size (6’0’’, 277 pounds) and a penchant for physicality in the middle of the D-line.

The Offense

To begin 2023, Carty will call plays for Delaware once again. The quarterback carrying them out will be different, as Nolan Henderson began his professional career with a stint with the Baltimore Ravens this summer.

Junior QB Ryan O’Connor is the incumbent set up for playing time who has taken first-team reps in sessions available to media. O’Connor played in four games in 2022, mopping up wins versus Morgan State, Monmouth University and first-round playoff foe Saint Francis University. His most extensive duty came in the second round at South Dakota State University (SDSU), where Delaware’s postseason ended with Henderson injured. O’Connor was 10-of-21 passing for 104 yards at SDSU with no touchdowns or interceptions.

O’Connor competed with senior Iowa Central Community College transfer Zach Marker through fall camp for the job of starter. In his press conference one week before the Blue Hens’ season opener at Stony Brook University on Aug. 31, Carty did not name a starting QB, suggesting instead both O’Connor and Marker could play in Week 1.

“I think the good thing about these two kids is that they’re not too different,” Carty said. “I’ve been in those situations where you almost had to have two game plans if two quarterbacks were in the game. That’s not going to be the case. They’re both very similar athletes, similar arm strength and similar talent level.” 

Carty has all signs pointing to O’Connor and Marker sharing time to open the campaign. The two will split reps during Stony Brook game week, Carty said.

“It’s not like a rhythm can’t be struck in a game regardless of who’s in there playing Q.”

O’Connor and Marker have a talented trifecta of running backs with Delaware experience in senior Marcus Yarns and graduates Kyron Cumby and Quincy Watson. It is anticipated that the three will platoon again in 2023.

At wide receiver, Thyrick Pitts is another Hen off to the NFL with the New England Patriots. Key graduate returnees include slot receiver Jourdan Townsend and wideout Chandler Harvin. They will start, but in Carty’s pass-heavy offense, there is ample room for others, such as grad transfers Joshua Youngblood (Rutgers) and Kym Wimberly (Harvard).

Delaware brings back continuity on its offensive line. Senior Brock Gingrich is a captain at center and is flanked by Bradly Anyanwu, Patrick Shupp, Fintan Brose and Blaise Sparks. None of the above is younger than a senior.

The Blue Hens’ freshman OL, Anwar O’neal and Anthony Caccese, worked into opportunities with the second line in camp.

Special Teams

Placekicking was a weakness for Delaware in 2022, but it was addressed by the staff in the offseason. Competition was afoot between transfers entering camp, as Nate Reed (East Stroudsburg University) and Alex Schmoke (Saint Francis grad) vied to bring relief. Both appear capable of immediately contributing.

The Hens are sure-footed at punter with Monmouth grad transfer Ryan Kost in the fold. Kost, like Schmoke, played inside Delaware Stadium against the home team last season and now takes his 2022 First Team All-CAA boot to Newark. Additionally, Kost is the starting holder for Delaware on placekicks by Schmoke or Reed.

Delaware’s game at Stony Brook kicks off at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 31. 91.3 FM WVUD’s live coverage from Long Island begins at 6:45 p.m.

Daniel Steenkamer/THE REVIEW

Originally posted 2023-08-26 14:52:06.