NEWARK — It’s sort of become Gene Coleman’s trademark.
If the Delaware receiver catches the football face-up to a defender, there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to make the first guy miss.
Coleman said it’s really just instinct.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty natural,” he said with a laugh. “Even throughout high school and middle school, that’s always been the type of player that I was. I’ve always been a finesse player. ... I’ve always been kind of light on my feet.
“The guys in the receiver room like to say that I have no hips and that’s why I’m able to break the way I do.”
Whatever the reason, Coleman was pretty elusive again in the Blue Hens’ 20-14 win at Jacksonville State on Sunday in the NCAA FCS Division I quarterfinals.
The senior finished with a career-high 129 yards on 10 receptions. He was just one catch shy of equaling the school record for a playoff game.
Fifth-ranked Delaware (7-0) could use that kind of production from its receivers again as it heads to No. 1 seed South Dakota State (7-1) for the FCS semifinals on Saturday. Kickoff is set for noon ET with the contest being televised on ESPN.
Quarterback Nolan Henderson said he’s always happy to get the ball to Coleman.
“He’s just a sure-handed receiver — a guy you can trust,” Henderson said after Sunday’s game. “And he’s a guy that you can throw it three or four yards and he’ll get you another 10 or 15. I think that’s a lot of what happened today.
“You kind of throw it under the sticks, get the ball into your playmakers’ hands and let him do what he does with it. He’s special with the ball in his hands.”
Coleman leads Delaware with 38 catches and is second to Thyrick Pitts in receiving yards with 390. He and Dillon Zimmerman are the only seniors the Hens have at a position where they have a number of young players.
But coach Danny Rocco said Coleman has always been a leader, even when he was younger.
“Ever since he got here, he’s got a lot of energy,” said Rocco. “I just enjoy communicating with him every day. He shows up to work, he has fun. He’s the same guy every day at practice.
“Nolan has a lot of trust in Gene’s ability to go up and get the ball. And I think Nolan has a lot of trust in Gene’s ability to make people miss.”
Of course, it doesn’t matter if one player makes 10 catches or 10 players make one catch. The only thing that’s important is that it adds up to a victory.
Coleman said Delaware’s ability to have so many players step up in big moments is the reason it’s one win shy of the national title game.
“On both sides of the ball, I feel like whenever a play is necessary, we’ve been able to make it,” he said. “We’ve been able to find a way. We’ve got dynamic players at every position. We’ve got a lot of different ways that we can attack defenses and really just find ways to win.
“Every day it’s really a different person. If you watch throughout the season, we’ve had so many players have big games. It hasn’t been the same two or three guys. It’s been a lot of different players coming in and stepping up. ... There’s a lot of different people for defenses to pay attention to.”
Rocco imagines Henderson didn’t feel too good when he woke up on Monday morning.
The Smyrna High grad took some big hits on Sunday.
“I guarantee that Nolan woke up this morning feeling like he was in a train wreck,” Rocco said on Monday. “There was a lot of contact out there. His body was bruised up pretty good.”
But, while hits are part of the game, one of the biggest hits Henderson took on Sunday was unnecessary.
Henderson had already missed some plays with a bruised left shoulder when he was stepping out of bounds after a short second-half scramble. Just as he was going out, he was clocked by JSU linebacker Markail Benton, who was ejected from the game for targeting.
“It was an ugly play,” said Rocco. “A violent, illegal hit.
“It was disappointing. We got in a moment in the game where we had 24 first downs and they had four. They were on the field not playing with a whole lot of integrity. That was concerning — that maybe the game was going to get a little out of control.”
Rocco expects Henderson to be able to play on Saturday, he’s just not sure what the QB will be able to do in practice. Henderson, for his part, shrugged off the shoulder injury — figuratively, not literally.
“It’s just a little bruise,” Henderson said after the game. “I felt alright. I’m sure adrenaline helped, too. I’m sure it will be a little sore. But if you play a football game, you’re going to be a little sore.”
Shuffling the line
Delaware has been dealing with a number of injuries on its offensive line.
The Hens switched a number of players in and out on Sunday.
“I don’t think I’ve been in a big game where we played so many offensive linemen,” said Rocco. “I’m kind of like, we’re in a tight football game in the fourth quarter, I’m looking on the field and it’s like, ‘Where are our starters?’ ... It’s like, ‘Holy Moses, this isn’t our starting lineup here.’ But they performed admirably.”
Dover High grad Bradly Anyanwu, who has started at right tackle the past couple weeks, was one of the players in the mix.
In particular, starting center Mickey Henry missed about half of the contest with a back issue. The injury kept him out of practice the week before.
James Prince, the first-year transfer from Howard, took his place.
“James is very valuable member of that offensive line,” said Rocco.
Sophomore Anthony Paoletti continues to play an important role as the Hens’ short-yardage running QB. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder scored his third touchdown of the season on Sunday and is fourth on the team with 80 net yards on 21 caries. ... Another backup quarterback, Zach Gwynn, played when Henderson’s shoulder was being wrapped. He completed both his pass attempts for 27 yards. ... Delaware had five sacks on Sunday to give it 16 for the season (for 97 yards). The Hens had just six sacks in an 11-game season in 2019.