It’s hard to believe how eventful 2020 was for the UH football program. Nick Rolovich unexpectedly left for the Pac-12, spring football was canceled due to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, said pandemic canceled football season, but then football season was resurrected for a bizarre and brief 2020 fall slate. It was a rollercoaster of a year. The madness didn’t end there with the Aloha Stadium debacle shocking fans at the beginning of 2021, but needless to say, Todd Graham and his Hawaii football program are hoping to be moving toward some level of normalcy this spring. Hawaii’s first of 15 practices started on March 25th, and will conclude with the spring game on April 23rd (assuming COVID doesn’t intervene). Hawaii returns 21 starters, and most of the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator G.J. Kinne left for UCF, and wide receivers coach Brennan Marion left for Pittsburgh.
Here are some things to monitor as the Warriors progress through spring football:
Five Storylines to Watch During Hawaii’s Spring Practice
1. Finding playmakers not named Chevan Cordeiro and Calvin Turner
This spring is unique for many reasons, one of them being that the NCAA essentially pausing player eligibility for 2020 means Hawaii returns nearly everyone that wanted to return. Melquise Stovall transferred to Pitt to reunite with Brennan Marion, Taaga Tuulima and Rico Bussey are NFL bound, Miles Reed transferred, and possibly a few other minor departures occurred, but none of them massive losses. The team that won the New Mexico Bowl (in Frisco, Texas) is largely back for 2021.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t question marks. Hawaii’s leading passer, rushing leader, second-leading rusher, and leading wide receiver, are all accounted for by two people: Chevan Cordeiro and Calvin Turner. Turner has a real argument for being the Mountain West’s top skill position talent. That’s great and all, but Hawaii would be wise to start building some depth.
Running back Dae Dae Hunter will likely start and could have a breakout season. Wide receiver Jared Smart returns for another season. Wide Receiver Nick Mardner has flashed greatness at times. There are candidates to accomplish true depth, but Hawaii will want to cultivate that in spring. Football is a brutal sport and an injury to Cordeiro or Turner could easily derail the 2021 season if Hawaii doesn’t have dependable depth.
2. New coaches already?
The hectic cycle of 2020 should have left Hawaii fans prepped for any and all surprises, but that didn’t stop a few more unexpected headlines. Offensive coordinator G.J. Kinne left for UCF, and wide receivers coach Brennan Marion left for Pittsburgh. Solid promotion for Kinne, although it’s tough to tell what Hawaii’s true offensive philosophy was in the one season Kinne was at UH. Hawaii replaced Coach Marion with Marcus Davis and promoted Bo Graham, Todd Graham’s son, to offensive coordinator. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that decision didn’t raise some eyebrows, but nobody will care if the offense succeeds.
Due to the restrictive nature of the pandemic-induced 2020 season, it’s hard to know if any change at all will come to the offense with the OC change. Was late fall 2020 enough time to even install a real system? Hawaii at times seemed very basic in its approach, and I’m guessing having no time at all to dive deep into the playbook played a role. Either way, Hawaii fans will be curious to see what twists the younger Graham’s influence has on the offense. In my only slightly informed opinion, I’m guessing Todd Graham will have enormous say on just about everything tactically.
3. Can the defense take the next step?
The offense has the built in excuses. New coaching philosophy, plus the limited practice time due to the pandemic, it’s understandable why Hawaii did not score more than 40 points the entire season.
Which makes Todd Graham’s War Dog defense all the more impressive. The performances against Wyoming, New Mexico, and San Diego State showed off understandable rust. The breakout game came against Nevada, in which Hawaii stood up the vaunted Carson Strong-led Wolf Pack offense in route to victory. A few weeks later, Hawaii stymied Houston’s offense in the bowl game. With literally nobody leaving, and reintroducing star Eugene Ford, Hawaii has an opportunity to do something unusual for large parts of UH football’s history: have a strong defense.
Coach Graham noted the emphasis this spring will be on cleaning up fundamentals, and fitting scheme to playmakers. Growth this spring on defense and building depth could lead to the Warriors to having a top-half of the conference defense this fall. Fall showed glimpses, and Graham will be working hard for the defense to take the next step this spring.
4. New leaders emerge
It should be no surprise to anyone that the likes of quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, running back Calvin Turner Jr. and linebacker Darius Muasau are the leaders on the team, leading vocally and by example, but Coach Graham has spotted a few other players stepping into leadership roles, including defensive lineman Djuan Matthews and Heliki Keliiliki.
It’s hard to not emphasize how restricted the program was for 2020. Even the “practices” in fall only enabled UH to have 20 or so players working at a time. The truth is, spring 2021 is the real beginning of the implementation of Todd Graham’s philosophy on the sport of football. 2020 provided mixed, but mostly encouraging results, but this spring will be the true beginning for Graham football at Manoa. Expect to hear more names starting to emerge and rise on the depth chart, especially on offense.
5. No place like home?
Time to address the elephant in the room. The paramount question posed to Hawaii football for 2021 isn’t about the roster, coaches, tactics, or anything related to the actual team. It’s about where Hawaii will play. An insane question, pandemic season aside, when was the last time we had to wonder where an FBS program would play ball? Athletic Director David Matlin has already announced that the Warriors will play at Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex. State officials, however, are still jockeying for position to propose ideas of placing more Band-Aids on Aloha Stadium.
The university’s position on this is official. Things could obviously change, but Hawaii’s home for spring practice could very well be its home for actual games going forward. Maybe for a few years, maybe longer than that. Who knows? Speculation and reporting on this debacle is expected to continue for years to come.
Could becoming familiar, accustomed to Ching Complex become an asset in the fall for the football team? Sure, the crowd will be small, but Hawaii’s players will have been working on that very field for months. Speculate away, but for now it appears one of Hawaii’s practice locations might be its playing location too.
Get comfy this spring, Warriors. This might be home now.
Hawaii opens the 2021 season in late August at the Rose Bowl.
2021 Hawaii Football Schedule
Aug. 28 - @UCLA
Sept. 4 - PORTLAND STATE
Sept. 11 - @Oregon State
Sept. 18 - SAN JOSE STATE*
Sept. 25 - @New Mexico State
Oct. 2 - FRESNO STATE*
Oct. 9 - Bye
Oct. 16 - @Nevada*
Oct. 23 - NEW MEXICO STATE
Oct. 30 - @Utah State*
Nov. 6 - SAN DIEGO STATE*
Nov. 13 - @UNLV*
Nov. 20 - COLORADO STATE*
Nov. 27 - @Wyoming*
*denotes conference game
Home games in caps and bold