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2019 Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors Season Preview

#Phase2 begins as Hawaii Football looks to prove it’s officially back

Duquesne v Hawaii Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

Another fall is upon Manoa as the Hawaii Warriors practice at the Clarence T.C. Ching Athletic Complex. The annual tradition of playing in the titled, “Week 0” means Hawaii hit the practice field a week sooner than most programs will. The cliché runs rampant this time of year, but Nick Rolovich and the Warriors truly believe this year will be different. For those not tied to the social media world, you’re probably wondering what #Phase2 means. It’s a hashtag Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich has been using, symbolizing the end of the rebuilding phase Hawaii football has been in since the struggles of the Chow era and the return of Hawaii’s run-and-shoot glory days.

The glory era of football is arguably the Colt Brennan era, particularly the 2006 and 2007 seasons. The Warriors went 11-3 in 2006, and famously went 12-1 in 2007, resulting in a major bowl bid. The following season, Hawaii managed to stay afloat despite June Jones leaving for SMU. Here’s a hard-to-believe stat: 2007-2008 was the last time Hawaii football qualified for bowl games in consecutive seasons. It’s been more than a decade.

That’s what #Phase2 is about. Leaving the struggles and negativity behind the program and reestablishing the consistency June Jones created that made the Hawaii Warriors a recognizable brand in college football. Are Nick Rolovich’s Warriors ready to take that next step?

Offense

Reasons for optimism: Cole McDonald’s latest edition of the run-and-shoot. The Warriors gunslinger burst onto the college football scene in 2018, throwing for 3,875 passing yards, 36 passing touchdowns, and only 10 interceptions as a redshirt sophomore. All this despite missing a game of action, and spending most of the 2018 season with a rather disgusting injury.

McDonald returns in 2019 fully fit, and has all five of his starting offensive lineman from 2018 back as well, including guard Solo Vaipulu, who might be the next big thing for Hawaii upfront. Senior wide receivers Cedric Byrd and JoJo Ward figure to threaten for all-conference honors. This offense should light up the scoreboard.

Cause for concern: No John Ursua. The former Hawaii slotback elected to enter the 2019 NFL Draft, and was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the 7th round. Replacing 1343 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches, and arguably one of the greatest wide receivers the program has ever had, is no simple task.

Should also be noted, as awesome as Hawaii was statistically, the offense slowed down in final seven games of the season as the difficulty of competition increased, only averaging 23.4 points per game. Quarterback Cole McDonald was benched in favor of Chevan Cordeiro at times, so while this offense has massive potential, it is no finished product.

Key stat: 3.5 sacks allowed per game. Hawaii ranked 127th nationally in sacks allowed, which is not good. Cole McDonald is back to 100% for 2019 after suffering his earlier mentioned injury, but if Hawaii wants it to stay that way, the protection upfront needs to be much better.

Wildcard: Junior slotback Melquise Stovall Jr. The junior college transfer has taken the long road to Hawaii, and believe it or not has victimized Hawaii football in the past. Stovall began his college career at California, where his first game came against none other than Hawaii. Nick Rolovich’s debut as head coach. Stovall had 4 catches for 61 receiving yards and a touchdown. Stovall will be looked upon to fill the void Ursua leaves behind. Remember the name James Phillips as well.

Defense

Reasons for optimism: 9 returning starters, coaching continuity. Yes, yes. Ranking 100th nationally in total defense, nobody will claim the Warriors are a defensive juggernaut. That said, the Warriors had a mountain to climb in 2018 with hardly any experience returning. Losing star linebacker Jahlani Tavai mid-season didn’t help that cause either. This unit took a beating, but defensive coordinator Corey Batoon and his staff are back with an experienced unit that’s played together. Look for Kamiana Padello to fill the void left by Zeno Choi and potentially improve upon his 8.5 sacks total from last season.

Cause for concern: Giving up lots of points. Over the final 7 games of the 2018 season, Hawaii conceded 40.6 points per game, and 35 points per game overall for the season. Nevada scored 40 on UH at Aloha Stadium. Utah State scored the most merciful 56 points you’ll ever see. In fact, Hawaii only held one opponent to under 20 points all season (Wyoming pre-Sean Chambers, 13). Whatever improvements were made, Hawaii simply gave up too many points in 2018. If Hawaii wants to take that proverbial next step, this trend must cease.

Key stat: 76th nationally in pass defense. No, the Warrior secondary will not be confused with the Legion of Boom, but this unit returns three starters from last season, including star cornerback Rojesterman Farris, who had 11 pass breakups last season. This unit is the strength of the defense and figures to take a step forward this fall.

Wildcard: Junior defensive end Mason Vega Jr. The junior college transfer is somewhat like Melquise Stovall: a transfer brought in to make an instant impact. Hawaii has struggled to find bookend defensive ends that can own the line of scrimmage. Kamiana Padello will be a force. Can Vega take advantage of the freedom he’ll have with teams being focused on Padello?

2019 Hawaii Warriors Schedule

Aug. 24 - Arizona

Aug. 31 - Bye

Sept. 7 - Oregon State

Sept. 14 - @Washington

Sept. 21 - Central Arkansas

Sept. 28 - @Nevada*

Oct. 5 - Bye

Oct. 12 - @Boise State*

Oct. 19 - Air Force*

Oct. 26 - @New Mexico*

Nov. 2 - Fresno State*

Nov. 9 - San Jose State*

Nov. 16 - @UNLV*

Nov. 23 - San Diego State*

Nov. 30 - Army

*conference game

-home games in bold

Thoughts: Hawaii has been a trendy story on the Group of 5 scene this off-season. Fun head coach, fun offense equal excitement. Despite that, the Vegas casinos aren’t drinking the green-colored Kool-Aid, setting the team’s over/under for wins at somewhere around 5.5. Not an enthralling projection. This line might have been provoked by a tough schedule. Let’s breakdown Hawaii’s trip to #Phase2 success.

The season opens with another Week 0 showdown, this time vs. a Power 5 opponent in Arizona. What were the chances? Hawaii vs. Arizona on opening day, months after legendary Hawaii and Arizona head coach Dick Tomey passed away. Khalil Tate and the Wildcats will be looking to make a statement themselves. Hawaii will have a bye the following week, then face another Pac-12 foe in Oregon State. I’m sure that matchup will not feature any hard feelings at all. If Hawaii wants to achieve its 2018 goals, they cannot lose that game. Week 3 features yet another Pac-12 matchup for the Warriors in Washington. That figures to be the toughest challenge the Warriors will face in 2019.

After that game, Hawaii will face FCS foe in Central Arkansas, which should be nothing more than a “get-right” tune up. Then Mountain West play begins in brutal fashion: @Nevada, followed by @Boise State with a bye week in between. Hawaii hasn’t won in Reno since 2007 (Dan Kelly’s famous kick) and has never won in Boise. Hawaii returns home afterward to face an Air Force team that will be no pushover. Through October 19th, Hawaii faces arguably its toughest slate ever. Plenty of Warriors teams of the last decade would easily finish 1-6 during that stretch. Is this group different?

Relief arrives in the form of New Mexico, although no road trip is ever straightforward for UH. Come November, Hawaii plays four of its final five games at home, including what might be highly-anticipated showdowns against Fresno State, San Diego State, and a weirdly-timed game against Army. The Warriors could face a possible 8 bowl-eligible teams in 2019. #Phase2 will be put to the test.

2018 Prediction: “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.”

I was right about the being wrong part.

Best case scenario: It is on like Donkey Kong for the Warrior offense. Cole McDonald makes the same nuclear jump that Colt Brennan made as a junior a little more than a decade ago. Hawaii beats Arizona in the opener, and hammers Oregon State. They also final get a win in Reno, and give Boise State all they can handle. The Warriors sweep their primary divisional threats in Fresno and San Diego State at home. The Warriors play in the Mountain West Championship with a 10-3 record. Warriors get their first double-digit win season since 2010.

Worst case scenario: It’s 2017 all over again. Hawaii enters the season with a ton of hype, but cannot overcome a brutal schedule. UH drops the Oregon State game, and opens the season 0-3. A loss at home to Air Force a month later puts the Warriors at a shocking 1-6 at midseason. Hawaii fares better against the easier portion of the schedule, but the damage is done. Hawaii finishes the season 4-9 and cannot take that next step as a program.

What’s probably going to happen: The truth is typically somewhere in the middle. Hawaii cannot overcome Khalil Tate and the Wildcats, but do get their first win over a Power 5 program since 2015 with a win vs. Oregon State. The next month proves to be difficult. Playing on the road is never easy for this program, and UH loses in both Reno and Boise. The battle for the Kuter Trophy could go either way in a high-scoring affair, but Hawaii beats New Mexico the following week. Hawaii also beats San Jose State, but loses to Army late in the season. Games against UNLV in Vegas and San Diego State at Aloha Stadium will determine whether Hawaii finishes 6-7 or 7-6. Reward is a showdown with Brigham Young in the Hawaii.

Whatever happens, one thing is for sure: the Cole McDonald-led offense figures to be fun to watch and Hawaii games be worth tuning into late at night.