Is listing Delaware State poised to stabilize with return of Justin Wilson?

Once upon a time, Delaware State was on a roll, winners of two in a row to open the 2011 season. That was then.

When wide receiver Justin Wilson, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s preseason player of the year, went down with a high-ankle sprain in Week 2, Delaware State lost most of its offense — and every game since. That four-game slide began with ugly losses against Delaware and South Carolina State by a combined 114-0. Next came a 34-7 pasting from Florida A&M, as the Wilson-less Delaware State put up just 377 total yards through next three games.

Delaware State coach Kermit Blount, in his first-year after a long stint at Winston-Salem State, remained upbeat: “This is a life lesson for these young men that I’m coaching,” he told St. Clair Murraine of the Tallahassee Democrat. “Life is never easy and it’s never always a good day or bad day. You just have to make the best of it. They’re not going to quit so we are going to deal with the bumps in the road.”

Even so, there was clearly something missing. And that thing might just have been Wilson: He returned last week, and though Delaware State (2-4, 0-3 MEAC) fell 38-21 to Norfolk State, Hornets quarterback Nick Elko connected for a career-high 339 yards. Wilson also set a career mark with 10 receptions, piling up 118 yards and a touchdown.

This team is, of course, far from back on track. After all, the Hornets lost in the end. Too, they are traveling this week to face a resurgent North Carolina A&T under first-year coach Rod Broadway, who has led the team to an undefeated start in league play that includes an impressive 22-3 win last week over reigning MEAC co-champion Bethune-Cookman.

The Bethune game, actually, wasn’t even as close as the score indicates, as A&T (3-2, 2-0) recovered three fumbles, intercepted a pass, recorded a safety and held the Wildcats to 5 yards rushing. North Carolina A&T hadn’t scored back-to-back conference wins since November 2003, and hadn’t beaten Bethune-Cookman in its last seven tries.

And, whatever Wilson is able to accomplish against those Aggies, Delaware State will simply have to get better on defense. Going into the FAMU game, this group had given up 11 touchdowns, including 10 on the ground, to fall to last in the 11-team MEAC. And we all know what happened next.

Still, Wilson’s return could be the rising tide that lifts all boats. After all, in one game, Delaware State put up 23 more passing yards than the Hornets had in consecutive losses to Delaware, South Carolina State and Florida A&M … combined.

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It’s been a wild ride, but Delaware State is going places under Kermit Blount

First-year head coach Kermit Blount is already turning heads, and setting records. First, Delaware State offed Big South Conference foe VMI 24-21, then bested lower-division Shaw — though that game was perhaps closer than it should have been.

Blount has now became the first Delaware State head coach to win his opening game since 1997, when John McKenzie’s squad topped Cheyney 50-18. Blount also ended a two-game losing streak for Delaware State in season openers, and halted VMI’s six-game win streak in opening dates. The Shaw victory, meanwhile, was the Hornets’ first night-game win at home since besting Florida A&M in 2008, a streak of four tries.

Delaware State — which only one three games last year, and just two in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play — is 2-0 for the first time since 2007.

Both games so far in 2011 have been thrillers, but the Hornets found a way to win. That’s a credit to Blount who, prior to arriving at Delaware State, spent 17 seasons at Winston-Salem State — where he won more games than any other coach at the school with a 91-87-3 record.

In the opener against the Virginia Military Institute, Nick Elko threw for 230 yards and three touchdowns, while preseason Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year Justin Wilson had two scoring catches to lead Delaware State’s 346-yard offensive outburst. But it wasn’t over until Blount’s defense, which forced three turnovers, secured the win with a key fourth-down stop on VMI’s final fourth-quarter possession.

A week later, the Hornets faced a scrappy Shaw program that has captured three of the last four Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships. It took a game-winning Delaware State touchdown after a fumble in the last minute of the game to finish off Shaw, 31-27. Delaware State’s furious comeback included outscoring Shaw 22-3 over the final 15 minutes, capped by Elko’s 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Darius Jackson with just 35 seconds left.

Jackson got a chance to step up when Wilson was sidelined with a high ankle sprain, making 11 catches for 127 yards. But he had to overcome other obstacles, too: He sat in Week 1 at VMI, after Blount suspended Jackson for violating unspecified team rules. Elko, meanwhile, went 25-of-46 passes for 238 yards, but also had three picks — two of which led to touchdowns by Shaw, a winless Division II team.

To repeat the old football cliche, though, it doesn’t get any easier: Delaware State now must ready itself for a Route 1 rivalry game against the University of Delaware. The 1-1 Blue Hens marched all the way to the NCAA’s FCS Championship Game last January, before falling in an excruciating 20-19 loss to Eastern Washington.

Wilson, Jones are bright spots for a rebuilding Delaware State program

Kermit Blount didn’t exactly walk into an ideal situation at Delaware State. The team is mired in a series of three straight losing seasons, and has been picked to finish eighth out of 11 programs in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference preseason poll.

But there were moments of glinting promise at Delaware State (3-8 last season, 2-6 in the MEAC) for Blount, who compiled a record of 91-87-3 over 16 seasons at Winston-Salem State — starting with Justin Wilson, the league’s preseason offensive player of the year.

The junior wideout is coming off a brilliant campaign that saw him lead the MEAC in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches — the first time that’s happened in conference history during the same year. Wilson averaged 85.2 yards per game with 15.9 yards per catch, finishing at No. 16 among all FCS players for receiving yards and notching the third-best mark in team history for yards in a season.

Senior running back Jaashawn Jones, also a MEAC preseason first-teamer, rushed for 724 yards and a quartet of scores in 2010. Junior tight end Ryan Langdon also found a home on the league’s second team. Lineman Darrell Brown and linebacker Brandon Harvey, both seniors, are expected to anchor the defense.

“I’m just trying to aim the program in the right direction and get it back on track,” Blount told The (Delaware) News Journal. “And I don’t think we’re too far off of being on track. … Just put the discipline back to where it has to be and make it a program the kids want to be attracted to.”

Blount is one of five new coaches in the MEAC, including North Carolina A&T’s Rod Broadway, Howard’s Gary Harrell, Savannah State’s Steve Davenport and North Carolina Central’s Henry Frazier. Delaware State begins the new season on Sept. 3 at Virginia Military Institute.

Better luck, next year: Youth will soon serve Delaware State

There has been a bright spot for Delaware State, even as the 2-8 team closes out a disappointing season Saturday at Howard: Redshirt sophomore Justin Wilson leads all MEAC receivers in catches (with 50), receiving yards (with 720) and touchdowns (with 7 receptions).

For all his team’s struggles to win, youthful successes like those are foundation-building talking points for coach Al Lavan.

In fact, Delaware State will suit up just eight senior starters against the Bison (1-9, 0-7), though notably one of the soon-to-depart is quarterback Anthony Glaud. Wide receiver Larrone Moore and defenders Francis Adjei and Kevin Green are also among the senior group.

But Lavan says the Hornets are young enough, and they are tough enough, that hopes springs eternal.

“This team has never given up,” Lavan said last week after a 31-21 loss last week to Norfolk State. “I’ve said to them, I’m as proud of this team as I was of the 2006 and 2007 teams, when we were co-champions and champions. This team has the same quality in terms of the effort level.”

[After beating Delaware State, Norfolk sets sights on winning season, career rushing record.]

Fellow sophomore James Rosseau — who Lavan, a former running backs coach with the Dallas Cowboys under Tom Landry, favorably compares to Gayle Sayers — has been an able replacement for the injured Jaashawn Jones. He rushed for 86 yards and scored a pair of 1-yard touchdowns against A&T, as well. Nick Elko, yet another sophomore, has spelled Glaud some in 2010, and leads the conference in passing efficiency.

Wilson will be a key target next year at Delaware State. He had seven catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns against Norfolk State, a week after catching eight passes for 129 yards in a win over North Carolina A&T. But keep an eye out, too, for Donnell Dixon. After a career day last week, Dixon now has 21 catches for 247 yards and two scores, and he’s just a redshirt sophomore, as well.

“I think our receivers,” Lavan said this week, “can match up with anybody.”

Meanwhile, a defense that got gashed against Norfolk (surrendering 459 yards of offense, including 310 on the ground), is continuing to mature through a series of devastating injuries.

“Me, personally, I feel like we’re going to win the championship next year,” Dixon added. “Keep watching.”