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State of the program: Hawaii Warriors

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Rainbow Warrior football is postponed. Now what?

San Jose State v Hawaii Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

Welcome to the worst fall Manoa has experienced in ages. Much like the rest of the United States, Oahu is being impacted by COVID-19. Football is the least of concerns with Governor David Ige attempting to squash the new surge in cases in the state. Protecting the most vulnerable in society is vital, but there is no doubt Hawaii is and will be hurt by preventive measures in tourism, and other factors in the local economy. One of the small factors affected by this pandemic is Hawaii Warriors football, who as of August 10th have had their fall season delayed until the spring (or at least that’s the supposed plan). No Hawaii football for the first time since 1945.

Now what? Well, don’t get me wrong, no football sucks entirely. Completely. In every way. That said, Hawaii has had an interesting run since beating Brigham Young in the 2019 Hawaii Bowl. Starting quarterback Cole McDonald left to prepare for the NFL Draft. Then the reigning West Division champions saw head coach Nick Rolovich shockingly leave Manoa for Pullman of all places. Hawaii found themselves searching for a new head coach in January, about as late in the recruiting process as it can get. Todd Graham ended up being the surprise selected.

Todd Graham?! Yes, Todd Graham. Instead of continuing the momentum built with an internal hire, athletic director Dave Matlin opted for a coach with more experience instead.

With Graham in place, it was time to move on. Spring football is often the starting point for new regimes to make their imprint on a new group of football players. That was the plan! Then the global pandemic broke out and ultimately led to the cancellation of spring football. Graham and his coaching staff were allowed to work with the players to some extent over the summer and into the ultimately-shutdown fall camp, but maybe it isn’t the end of the world that Hawaii is being afforded some extra time to prepare with no football this fall.

The staff, players, fans, hell everyone would MUCH more prefer to be playing this fall, but with all the chaos the program has endured since slaying the BYU Cougars last December, some added time to implement Todd Graham’s tactical system and overall program philosophy isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Where does this leave Hawaii? Waiting, uncertain when the program will play again. Spring football is the goal, but it certainly comes with potential problems. First off, the pandemic is not guaranteed to be over with by then, as much as it infuriates me to type that. Second, how many games? College football athletes playing 20+ contests in a calendar year would be a problem. Is it just conference play? Divisional play? January-March? March-May? So many unanswered questions. Whenever the Rainbow Warriors return, here is where things left off:

Offense:

Todd Graham comes to Hawaii with a legacy of fast-paced offenses from his days at Rice, Tulsa, Pittsburgh, and Arizona State. Win or lose (most of the time win), his teams were not going to fail to entertain. That’s good news for a Hawaii offense that intends to hit the ground running under Graham, despite losing Cole McDonald and three top wide receivers from an offense that ranked 5th in passing nationally (337 yards per game through the air) and averaged nearly 34 points per game.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Chevan Cordeiro is the safety net for the program, with the expectation that the drop off from McDonald to Cordeiro will be minimal and unnoticeable. A difficult standard for Cordeiro to live up to, who was great at times (San Jose State, Army for example), but had a cautious moment or two (UNLV). Running back Miles Reed returns and will be one of the best the program has ever had, and perhaps play an even larger role in this new offensive system.

The real intrigue with the offense comes at wide receiver. Redshirt senior Melquise Stovall returns to the program after being kicked off the team in the middle of last season. He figures to be a key talent in this group. Rico Bussey comes to Hawaii as a transfer from North Texas, and Aaron Cephus arrives from Rice. Cephus has played and scored against Hawaii in the recent past. Both bring size to a previously diminutive group, which was typical for the run-and-shoot.

It begs the question, how does the wide receiver group shape up? Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot is gone and off to Washington State. Does Graham favor size, speed? Jared Smart and Lincoln Victor should play key roles for the Warriors, but might Graham and his offensive staff tab taller players like Nick Mardner and the transfers instead? Keep an eye out for Quin Bright, one of the most highly-touted Hawaii recruits ever. This unit is loaded with talent of all shapes and sizes, and only time and practice will determine who gets the starting nod whenever football returns.

Whoever starts at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end (!!!), they’ll be benefiting from one of the best returning offensive lines Hawaii has ever had. Ilm Manning has top draft pick upside, and the group of Michael Elitese, Taaga Tuuilima, Solo Vaipulu, Gene Pryor, and Kohl Levao will combine for a rock solid offensive line that’ll keep Cordeiro off the ground all season. This is the strength of the team.

Uncertainty is the word of the year, but one thing is for sure: offensive coordinators Tony Hull and G.J. Kinne inherit a talented offense. There are question marks related to inexperience, both among the players and the young staff, but with a stalwart offensive line returning it would be a surprise if Hawaii’s offense doesn’t entertain whenever football returns.

Defense:

It would be easy to look at Todd Graham’s resume and think he’s an offensive-minded coach. He is, to some extent, but his personal background is actually on the defensive side. The results were mixed at Arizona State. The defense forced a lot of turnovers and tackles for loss, but were often ranked poorly in pass defense. Fortunately for Graham, the secondary is precisely where the defense is at its strongest. Graham wisely retained Abe Elimimian, who guided a secondary that produced studs in safety/nickel Khoury Bethley and Eugene Ford. Senior Cortez Davis will be one of the best corners in the conference. Keep an eye on safety/nickel Kai Kaneshiro, he’s a potential breakout candidate.

It’s not always perfect, but this unit should continue to limit offensive success on the back end.

Victor Santa Cruz is the new defensive coordinator, a former Hawaii Rainbow Warrior himself returns to Hawaii from Asuza Pacific. He, along with co-DC Jacob Yoro, will oversee a linebacker unit beaming with talent. Jeremiah Pritchard will anchor this unit, and the return of Penei Pavihi after Pavihi missed the 2019 season with an injury, will only boost Hawaii’s cause with their experience. True sophomore and Mililani product Darius Muasau has the chance to be special. Much like the secondary, the linebacking unit will be relied on for experience.

Finally, we must touch on the defensive line. If there is any concern on this defensive unit, it’s this group. Being truthful, you could probably say that very sentiment about any year dating back to 2011 or so. Junior Blessman Ta’ala is one of the best nose tackles in the conference, and seniors Mason Vega and Derek Thomas have provided a bright moment or two, but collectively this unit must be better.

The Warriors ranked 111th nationally in rushing defense (not totally the DL’s fault, of course), 124th in team sacks, and 126th in team tackles for loss. The days of Ikaika Alama-Francis and Mel Purcell bookending Hawaii’s defensive line feel like a long time ago. Jonah Laulu, the Las Vegas product, is my pick to breakout and lead Hawaii in sacks, providing a sorely-needed presence in both pass rush and run support.

As is usual, Hawaii’s offense should run-and-gun teams and light up the scoreboard, but it’s the defense that’ll decide if Hawaii wins or loses. The secondary will be strong, and the linebacker group is solid, but if the defensive line cannot take a step forward, this unit could collectively struggle at times.

Now what?

All those words may or may not seem great on paper, but we’re in uncharted territory. The plan is seemingly to restart in the spring. What does the schedule look like? Does travel distance play a role? Colorado State recently saw stars Warren Jackson and Trey McBride either leave or enter their name into the transfer portal (McBride has since rescinded). Hawaii has a senior-laden roster, can Todd Graham keep these players in the fold? Could some ponder grad-transferring, or entering the draft early? It’s hard to tell. Hawaii is likely facing some financial troubles as an athletic department, how will that affect everyone involved? So many questions, not many answers.

When Hawaii returns to the gridiron, I expect the offense to put up points. The defense, while not the 85’ Bears, should be good enough to make Hawaii successful in the win column. Can they match the 10-5 record of 2019? Exceed? Regress? I think all of those outcomes are on the table.

This sucks, folks. I will not lie. I remember attending games at Aloha Stadium. No eating saimin in the stands, no pre-game trips to L&L before heading for the stadium parking lot. No band playing at halftime. It hurts my soul to know football isn’t happening for Hawaii and the Mountain West this fall. Ultimately, I hope you the reader stays healthy and safe and I hope Hawaii returns to the football field as soon as possible (safely, of course).