For much of 2020, “I don’t know” has been a common answer to plenty of questions. Last week, college athletics programs across the United States began to reintegrate athletes into their summer conditioning programs with the caveat that they must be first tested for COVID-19, and either approved or quarantined based on the results of those tests. It seems as if there will be a 2020 college football season of some sort. With that in mind, Hawaii football presses on during one of the most unique off-seasons the program has ever endured.
Nick Rolovich led Hawaii to 10 wins in 2019, capping it off with a West Division championship and a bowl victory over old rival Brigham Young. One of the best seasons in program history.
Then January happened.
Rolovich shockingly left for Washington State. Todd Graham of all people replaced him. A pandemic occurred and resulted in the cancellation of spring football. When mid-July arrives and Graham watches his new team in action for the first time, who are the top 10 returning players on the squad? There are few surefire right answers to that question, but here are my best guesses:
10. Jonah Laulu, DL, Redshirt Sophomore
What’s a ranking list without a few bold takes? The 2018 Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year from Vegas played sparingly in 2019, only appearing in 5 games, most of them late in the season. In those contests, he registered 7 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. Let’s be honest: the last decade of Hawaii football hasn’t been littered with elite defensive line play, but in the moments Laulu was allowed on the field, it was surprising he wasn’t featured more often. At 6’5” 280 lbs, Laulu showed the ability to stop the run and attack the backfield, a dual skill set that has evaded many Hawaii defensive linemen in recent regimes.
Laulu’s showing in the Mountain West championship game showed off a player with huge upside, and I’m placing him here at #10 in anticipation of a breakout 2020 campaign. Laulu is the edge lineman the Warriors have been waiting for.
9. Kohl Levao, OL, Redshirt Senior
I know, I know. There is a reasonable argument that Levao, who was on the 2019 preseason Rimington Trophy Watch List, could be as high as #1 in these rankings. Levao played 4 games in 2019, missing 11 due to injury. When completely healthy, he might be the top pro prospect on the team. Hawaii’s offensive line is as deep as maybe it has ever been, and Levao has the chance for a special senior season, but he’ll need to show he can remain healthy to make that impact. Again, he probably deserves to be higher on this list, but the injury tag needs to be shed first. He played at guard in 2019, tackle in 2018, and is capable of playing at center too. Only time will tell where Graham and Offensive Line coach Sam Bennett project Levao.
8. Eugene Ford, DB, Senior
One of the swiss army knives in the secondary, Ford saw time at safety, nickel, and corner for the Warriors in 2019, recording a tackle in every single one of Hawaii’s 15 games last fall. The 6’2” 200 lbs defensive back had a huge game against Brigham Young in the Hawaii Bowl and is a player that will be relied upon for the 2020 defense. The strength of the Hawaii defense is in the back seven, and the Warrior secondary should be solid again this fall.
7. Cortez Davis, DB, Senior
One of the catalysts to Hawaii’s improvement on defense in recent seasons has been the corner position, and Davis has played a large role in that progress. An all-Mountain West honorable mention in 2019, Davis led the Warriors with 13 pass breakups and accounted for 53 tackles, 44 of them solo tackles. The junior college transfer made an instant impact in 2019 and figures to be one of the best cornerbacks in the Mountain West this fall. With Cornerbacks Coach Abe Elimimian returning in the same position with the new coaching staff, this unit figures to have the most seamless transition.
6. Darius Muasau, LB, Sophomore
The preseason injury to Penei Pavihi was a devastating one to Hawaii. Pavihi was the obvious candidate to replace star linebacker Jahlani Tavai, and his injury at the very least hurt the depth of the unit. Then Jeremiah Pritchard got hurt as well, and it appeared to be danger time for the linebacking group.
Enter the Mililani Trojan from Ewa Beach. Darius Muasau totaled 60 tackles as a true freshman, good for third on the entire team, and had no problem adjusting to FBS college football. Pavihi returns healthy for 2020, and that might cut into Muasau’s overall playing time, but much like Jonah Laulu I think we saw the beginning of a burgeoning star in Muasau. Look for Darius to improve on his stellar freshman campaign and potentially build into one of the conference’s best linebackers.
5. Gene Pryor, OL, Redshirt Senior
The strength of the Hawaii football team was the offensive line in 2019, and figures to be once again this fall. As a result, here begins a run on offensive linemen in these rankings. Pryor started at right tackle for the Warriors in 2019, and earned an honorable mention for the all-Mountain West team. The run-and-shoot offense is often make-or-break depending on protection upfront, and the Warriors were a stonewall for much of 2019 in that regard. Pryor faced challenge after challenge at right tackle and kept Cole McDonald and Chevan Cordeiro off the turf. If you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about the 2020 Warriors, players like Pryor are a good starting spot.
4. Taaga Tuulima, OL, Redshirt Senior
The team’s 2019 offensive MVP and another all-Mountain West honorable mention, Tuulima has been the cornerstone of the offensive line the last two seasons at center. The run-and-shoot offense quickly becomes the duck-and-cover if the center is not outstanding at what he does, and Tuulima has been the tip of the spear for this unit. As I noted earlier with Levao and Pryor, if Hawaii is to succeed this fall, it will likely be due to the top notch offensive line play and it starts with Tuulima snapping the ball.
3. Miles Reed, RB, Redshirt Junior
The run-and-shoot offense is known for attractive passing attacks. Win or lose, you know Hawaii will at the very least entertain by tossing the ball all over the field. That said, sometimes the “run” in run-and-shoot is silent. That wasn’t the case in 2019 when Miles Reed finished with 908 rushing yards, good for 5.2 yards per carry. Adding 8 touchdowns in there, Reed’s numbers aren’t inflated by long runs (his longest of 2019 was 31 yards). It’s not completely known what Todd Graham’s offense will look like this upcoming fall, but it’s a safe bet that Reed will be featured plenty. Reed was one of the best running backs in the conference in 2019 and will feast this fall behind an elite offensive line.
2. Khoury Bethley, DB, Junior
One of the emerging stars on the team, Bethley had a legendary performance in Hawaii’s bowl victory over Brigham Young, and led the team tackles over the course of the season. Bethley also had 61 solo tackles, which also led the entire team. Bethley can play all over the secondary, but mostly featured at safety. Hawaii’s secondary is growing increasingly crowded, and Bethley might be the best of them all and possibly the best player on the defense. Expect a potential all-Mountain West type of season from the junior Warrior.
1. Ilm Manning, OL, Junior
As noted earlier, Hawaii’s strongest position group is the offensive line, so it should be no stunner that I believe the team’s best player is left tackle Ilm Manning. Manning shocked viewers by earning a starting position as a true freshman in 2018, totally unheard of in college football. Incoming high school linemen almost assuredly redshirt. Manning has since started all 29 games and was all-Mountain West second team in 2019. There might not be a position on the field in the run-and-shoot offense more demanding than left tackle. The quarterback’s blindside is relentlessly attacked in the pass heavy system, and if the tackle isn’t up to snuff, disaster is on the horizon. Manning not only negates the attack, he completely squashes it. Manning is the best player on Hawaii’s team and has a future in the NFL.
Honorable Mention: Blessman Ta’ala, Chevan Cordeiro, Solo Vaipulu, Jared Smart, Jeremiah Pritchard, Penei Pavihi, Melquise Stovall
HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY EXCLUDE…
Alright, this list is purely my opinion and there are bound to be people who disagree. Here’s my flow of thought: Blessman Ta’ala is a force at nose tackle, he probably deserves to be in the top 10, but the overall defensive line unit has not performed at a high level. Possibly the most surprising omission to some will be Chevan Cordeiro. Cordeiro was great in relief, but in his performance against a poor UNLV defense as the starter makes me pause (also started vs. San Jose State, Army). Still work to be done before anointed one of the team’s top 10 players. Solo Vaipulu is also very good on the offensive line, but I already included several linemen. Jared Smart totaled over 1,000 receiving yards in 2019, but that was in the run-and-shoot offense. The wide receiving corps has plenty of candidates to start, and I’m not sure who fits Graham’s system the best so I punted on that selection. Jeremiah Pritchard and Penei Pavihi both return healthy this fall and could easily warrant inclusion, but health and consistency are required. Melquise Stovall, who is rumored to be back on the team, might be the most dangerous weapon on the team, but I can’t include him just yet.
So, how badly am I wrong? Who should be on the list? Who shouldn’t be on the list? Feel free to comment below. Here’s to a safe and successful 2020 college football season.