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2018 Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors Season Preview

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The run-and-shoot returns to Manoa as Hawaii looks to outperform expectations

NCAA Football: Hawaii Bowl-Hawaii at Middle Tennessee Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Fans of the Hawaii Warriors don’t need any reminder about how rough things have been for the football program, but here’s a quick recap anyway: After Greg McMackin was fired at the end of the 2011 season, Norm Chow was hired and immediately scrapped Hawaii’s run-and-shoot offense. For 12 years the Warriors created a brand, an identity surrounded around the offense that allowed wide receivers to “adjust on the fly” and featured absurd offensive statistics on a weekly basis. Sometimes Hawaii won, sometimes they lost, but no fan, Hawaii or neutral observer, could claim the run-and-shoot Warriors were boring. It was a 10 year-old playing Madden’s dream: 40+ passing attempts. The quarterback finishing with 250-300 passing yards meant the offense didn’t go as planned that day. Whatever the result, Hawaii always entertained.

Hawaii’s variation of the offense can be traced back to Portland State, where the offense was popularized by Mouse Davis, who eventually coached June Jones. June Jones would then bring that system to Hawaii after he spurned the NFL to coach his beloved Rainbows (who were subsequently changed to the Warriors). A golden age of Hawaii football was born, and one of Jones’ earliest success stories was current Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich. Rolovich struggled at first in 2000. Coming off of a storybook 1999 season, UH got pounded at home by Portland State of all teams 20-45, and went on to finish 3-9 that season. Rolo buried that dreadful season by returning in 2001 in finishing his career with a 9-3 season that featured wins over 18th ranked Fresno State and 9th ranked and previously undefeated BYU. Don’t ever forget Chad Owens.

Rolovich put on display what was to come over the next decade of UH football. Rolo added to his run-and-shoot legacy by coaching the Bryant Moniz-led Warriors that set the WAC on fire from 2009-2011, but McMackin’s somewhat surprising firing at the end of 2011 meant a change of plans was ahead. Rolo went to learn the pistol offense while at Nevada before returning to Manoa, but he’s done folks. The time has come for Hawaii to return to what made them special in the first place. The run-and-shoot is back. After last season’s disappointing campaign, it’s time to let it rip and hope that attitude permeates throughout the program.

There is a problem, however. The 2018 Rainbow Warriors are one of the youngest and most inexperienced teams in college football. What does that mean? Can the switch back to the run-and-shoot make life easier on the baby Warriors? Let’s take a look at the possibilities.

Offense

Reasons for optimism: Just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Nick Rolovich and offensive coordinator Brian Smith played in the run-and-shoot offense together at UH. They know it as well as anyone in the industry. They’ve coached it, they’ve lived it. A return to Hawaii’s golden era identity can only bode well for the program.

Recruiting successful high school QB talent has proven difficult at UH. Since the run-and-shoot was implemented at UH in 1999, only Timmy Chang was a standout performer that UH recruited out of high school. Stars like Rolo, Brennan, Moniz, etc. were junior college transfers. Rolo is looking to end that trend with the additions of talented high school QBs Chevan Cordiero and Jeremy Moussa. Cordeiro in particular has experience in the run-and-shoot, having learned it at Saint Louis school under former UH coach Cal Lee. Moussa might be the most physically-gifted of the bunch.

Cause for concern: John Ursua is the only full-time returning starter. The rest of the offense, including the quarterbacking competitors, are all inexperienced to say the least. Star offensive lineman Asotui Eli will miss the 2018 season with an injury. So much of the run-and-shoot’s (let’s go with R&S from here on out) success is predicated on everyone being on the same page. Offensive line play is critical. The quarterback needs to anticipate wide receiver movement. The receivers need to know how to recognize a coverage and adjust their route based on the formation. That’s a lot to ask of an overall group that hasn’t played much college football.

Key stat: 22 yards. That’s how many passing yards Cole McDonald, the redshirt sophomore quarterback that’s expected to be the leader of the group entering fall camp, had last season. Hawaii is going to toss the ball all over creation, and they’re going to do so with a largely untested quarterback group.

Wildcard: True freshmen Jeremy Moussa and Chevan Cordeiro. As noted above, while McDonald has seniority on the other competitors, he’s not exactly battle-proven. If McDonald isn’t up to snuff, Hawaii landed two intriguing high school quarterbacks. Moussa has arm talent that will make the staff drool. Cordeiro’s entire approach, from his drop back to his release, reminds some of Timmy Chang. Add in that Saint Louis/Cal Lee connection, and Rolo has two potential studs waiting in the wings. If by mid-season it’s evident that Hawaii is enduring a rebuilding season, expect one or both of these kids to play. Junior college wide receivers Cedric Byrd and Jojo Ward are potential breakout talents as well.

Defense

Reasons for optimism: A renewed and experienced defensive coaching staff. After the departures of several defensive coaches, Rolo hired experienced coaches in defensive coordinator Corey Batoon, linebacker coach Mark Banker, and defensive line coach Ricky Logo. Banker was a one-time head coaching candidate for UH football. Losing Trayvon Henderson sucks, but the linebacking tandem of Jahlani Tavai and Solomon Matautia is one to fear. Rojesterman Farris and Eugene Ford are one of the better corner tandems in the conference, and while there are some holes to fix on defense, these new coaches breathe new life into this unit. Bold take: Fresno State and Wyoming shocked viewers in 2017 by turning around their abysmal defensive units from the previous season under the tutelage of new coaching. While UH might not be dominant, don’t be blown away if this defense goes from rags to riches this season.

Cause for concern: The defensive line is talented, but lacking in experience. Defensive tackles Blessman Taala and Doug Russell are names to stash away for the future, but this unit is much like the QB group: several potentially very good prospects, but expecting the world of them right away is probably unfair.

Key stat: 105th. Hawaii ranked 105th or worse in six major defensive categories last season. New coaches are great and all, but this unit has plenty of bad numbers to erase from the past...decade, really.

Wildcard: Junior Ikem Okeke. Okeke’s experiment at linebacker is over. No longer is his talent hidden away in the deep linebacker group. His move to safety is the type of transition that might show off the expertise of Batoon and Banker.

2018 Schedule:

August 25 - @ Colorado State Rams*

September 1 - NAVY MIDSHIPMEN

September 8 - RICE OWLS

September 15 - @ Army Black Knights

September 22 - DUQUESNE DUKES

September 29 - @ San Jose State Spartans*

October 6 - WYOMING COWBOYS*

October 13 - @ Brigham Young Cougars

October 20 - NEVADA WOLF PACK*

October 27 - @ Fresno State Bulldogs*

November 3 - UTAH STATE AGGIES*

November 10 - Bye

November 17 - UNLV REBELS*

November 24 - @ San Diego State Aztecs*

ALL CAPS - Home game

*Conference game

Thoughts: The Vegas casinos have placed Hawaii’s over/under win total at around 3 this year. I’d say that’s harsh, but their o/u of 4.5 from 2017 proved prophetic. Hawaii bucked the odds in 2016 under Rolovich, but proved those Vegas dudes right in 2017. Let’s breakdown the schedule to see if the o/u of 3 is right on, or off base.

Hawaii opens up in Week 0 for the third straight season, clearly showing that this will be a featured part of the schedule going forward. They play Colorado State on the road in the Inexperienced Teams Bowl. The Rams might be the only team Hawaii plays in 2018 that is more inexperienced than they are. The point spread is -14 Rams, making the Warriors a stiff underdog. The Rams are inexperienced, the weather should be nice, and neither team has had a tune up game. It’s unlikely UH wins, but there is some makings of an upset here. Hawaii then returns home to face a strong Navy team at home. While there are no Power 5 teams on the schedule, Navy, @ Army, and @ BYU will be tough out-of-conference games. The Rice and Duquesne games smashed into the September slate are obvious must-win games.

Conference play really opens up in October when UH travels to San Jose, California to play the Spartans. There is no game on this schedule more “must win” than this contest. Loser is likely headed for 6th place in the West Division. Hawaii won the 2017 contest 37-26. The following week Hawaii will play for the Paniolo Trophy when Wyoming comes to town. Rolo and company almost shocked the Josh Allen-led Cowboys in Laramie last season.

A tough slate continues with Brigham Young on the road, Nevada at home, and Fresno on the road. The nightmare loss in Reno was the season-killer for the Warriors in 2017. Hawaii will then close the season with home games vs. Utah State and UNLV, and conclude the 2018 regular season in San Diego vs. the Aztecs. There obviously aren’t many “gimmes” on this schedule. That said, there might be an unsuspecting opponent in there who doesn’t handle the run-and-shoot well.

2017 prediction: “Hawai’i continues to improve, but has its ups and downs along the way. Much like we saw in the New Mexico and UNLV games last season, wins and losses can be determined by one or two key moments. Depending on where the ball bounces, Hawai’i should finish around 6-6 or 7-5 this fall and make another trip to the Hawai’i Bowl.”

*LOUD BUZZER NOISE* Wrong.

Best case scenario: The return to the run-and-shoot is an instant success as Hawaii wins 8 regular season games for the first time since 2010 and finds their quarterback of the future in the process. The Hawaii Bowl somehow lures a Power 5 opponent to Aloha Stadium and UH beats them to conclude an unexpected dream season.

Worst case scenario: The inexperienced Warriors display that they aren’t ready for prime time, sneaking out two early wins vs. Rice and Duquesne, but then lose out from there. 2018 proves to be a learning experience...is the nicest way of phrasing this scenario.

What’s probably going to happen: The early portion of this schedule is tricky, despite the fact that it lacks a Power 5 opponent. Colorado State, while inexperienced, is one of the more talented programs in the conference. With Navy and Army featuring early, a 2-3 start is probably likely assuming UH doesn’t pull off an upset or isn’t upset themselves. Again, the San Jose State games is crucial. They absolutely need to win that game. With Wyoming, BYU, Nevada, Fresno, and Utah State lurking, 3-3 is manageable. 2-4 is a potential season killer. I’ll predict Hawaii splits the San Jose and Nevada games, but loses to Wyoming, BYU, Fresno, and Utah State. The Warriors will need to pull off an upset or two in that stretch if they want to go bowling. In this case, this puts them at 3-8. I think one of the freshman QBs starts vs. UNLV on senior night and provides fans hope that better days are ahead by beating the Rebels and performing admirably at San Diego State, but finishing 4-9. Lucky for the 2018 Warriors, I’m good at being wrong. Time will tell if this team succumbs to mass inexperience, or if another surprise emergence is in the cards.

More than anything, Hawaii needs to hope the run-and-shoot makes them fun again.