(STATS) - It would seem the last thing Delaware football players wanted to hear from new coach Danny Rocco at his first team meeting this past winter was what he thought worked better at his former school, Richmond.
Rising senior center Brody Kern didn't mind. As Rocco spoke, Kern and others agreed with him.
"That's kind of how he started with changing this program around," Kern remembers.
"He thought our team was very, very talented, but he thought our mental approach to the game was not there. He made comparisons that he thought Richmond players knew that they were going to win, and he didn't see that in us."
Now that he's gained an up-close-and-personal view of the Blue Hens, Rocco is even more convinced their struggling program's fortunes will improve sooner rather than later. They may not have as good of a season as Richmond, which was picked second in the CAA Football preseason poll Tuesday at media day in Baltimore, but their fifth-place prediction in the deeply talented 12-team conference suggested the rest of the conference feels strongly in Rocco's work.
Delaware is coming off two straight 4-7 seasons - their first consecutive losing records since 1938 and '39 - and plummeted to 10th place with a 2-6 CAA mark last year. But the pollsters sure think the Blue Hens will be competitive with the likes of preseason No. 1 James Madison, the defending CAA and FCS national champion; Richmond; third-choice Villanova; and fourth-choice New Hampshire. All four were FCS playoff qualifiers last season.
"It's not really a negative or positive," senior linebacker Charles Bell said of the prediction. "We haven't really finished that high up, so right in the middle, we can't really complain. But, ultimately, we want to be No. 1 at the end of the season."
Said Rocco, "I've kind of been in this league long enough to know that there's always one team that's kind of the middle-of-the-pack team that is relevant late in the year. ... Do we have a chance to be that team? Most certainly, as do a few others. But I think that's a fair assessment of where we are heading into (preseason) camp."
In Rocco, the Blue Hens are finding him to be a players' coach. He's organized and focused, and driven to see them succeed.
Even members of his former program can't deny Richmond's loss was Delaware's gain. Their Oct. 21 game at Delaware Stadium will be as much about emotion as X's and O's.
"He really valued those relationships with his players, and I'm sure if you ask the Delaware guys, they'll tell you the same thing," Richmond's two-time 3,000-yard passer Kyle Lauletta said. "He really vouched for us and he did a lot for every student-athlete on our team. So we're very close with him and it was sad to see him go.
"It was a little bit weird having our coach go to a team in the same conference. We'll use it as motivation. The last thing we want to do is dwell on it and let it affect our preparation for next season. We just put it behind us. We look forward to playing them, beating them and beating all the other teams on our schedule."
With Delaware boasting a senior class that's 20 deep, Rocco has stressed the responsibility of having a "win today" mentality.
The Blue Hens, who haven't made the playoffs since their 2010 championship game run, boast three CAA preseason selections, with senior nose tackle Bilal Nichols joining Bell and Kern.
They'll try to improve their passing game with senior quarterback Joe Walker and become more balanced alongside one of the CAA's better run attacks with backs Wes Hills, Thomas Jefferson and Kareem Williams. The defense should be strong with nine returning starters, although Delaware must adjust from the switch of a 4-3 base alignment to a 3-4.
Rocco says there's no textbook way to lift a new program, that what he did previously at Liberty was different than what he did at Richmond. Considering program histories, Delaware more resembles Richmond.
"The fan base's beliefs and expectations are similar to mine," Rocco said. "I would not have made the transition if I did not think that we could return to and then sustain (success)."
Said Kern: "We realize with the history of Delaware, if you don't have a winning season, you get forgotten about by fans, by the CAA, by other teams in the CAA.
"It makes us want to change things."
James Madison, coming off its second FCS national title, not only was the prohibitive favorite in the CAA's preseason poll, earning 21 of the 24 first-place votes, but it had the most players on the preseason team with six. Leading the way was senior quarterback Bryan Schor, the conference's 2016 offensive player of the year and its preseason choice.
Although it was picked ninth, Maine had the second-most preseason selections with four. Albany, Delaware, Richmond, Stony Brook and Villanova had three each.
Villanova senior safety Rob Rolle was the preseason defensive player of the year.
KEY CAA FOOTBALL GAMES
Richmond at James Madison (Nov. 11) - The visiting team has won the last three times in this heated rivalry.
Five More: Maine at New Hampshire (Aug. 31); Villanova at Albany (Sept. 23); Villanova at James Madison (Oct. 14); Richmond at Delaware (Oct. 21); Richmond at Villanova (Nov. 4)
CAA FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL
Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors Poll
1. James Madison (21 first-place votes), 241 points
2. Richmond (3), 210
3. Villanova, 209
4. New Hampshire, 169
5. Delaware, 133
6. Albany, 129
7. William & Mary, 124
8. Stony Brook, 118
9. Maine, 100
10. Towson, 84
11. Elon, 36
12. Rhode Island, 31
CAA FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM
Offensive Player of the Year - Bryan Schor, QB, James Madison
Defensive Player of the Year - Rob Rolle, S, Villanova
QB - Bryan Schor, James Madison, Sr.
RB - Stacey Bedell, Stony Brook, Sr.
RB - Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, Albany, Jr.
RB - Deontez Thompson, Richmond, So.
FB - Anthony Manzo-Lewis, Albany, Sr.
WR - DeVonte Dedmon, William & Mary, Sr.
WR - Neil O'Connor, New Hampshire, Jr.
WR - Micah Wright, Maine, Jr.
TE - Jonathan Kloosterman, James Madison, Sr.
OL - Jamil Demby, Maine, Sr.
OL - Chris Durant, William & Mary, Sr.
OL - Brody Kern, Delaware, Sr.
OL - Timon Parris, Stony Brook, Sr.
OL - Aaron Stinnie, James Madison, Sr.
DL - Andrew Ankrah, James Madison, Sr.
DL - Malachi Hoskins, Albany, Sr.
DL - Bilal Nichols, Delaware, Sr.
DL - Brandon Waller, Richmond, Sr.
LB - Charles Bell, Delaware, Sr.
LB - Shayne Lawless, Stony Brook, Jr.
LB - Ed Shockley, Villanova, Sr.
S - Raven Greene, James Madison, Sr.
S - Rob Rolle, Villanova, Sr.
CB - Najee Goode, Maine, Sr.
CB - Prince Smith Jr., New Hampshire, So.
PK - Griffin Trau, Richmond, Jr.
P - John Hinchen, Villanova, Sr.
Return - Shane Simpson, Towson, So.
Specialist - Robert Carter, James Madison, Jr.