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2021 Hawaii Warriors Season Preview

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The Rainbow Warriors look ahead to fall football after a cruel off-season

NCAA Football: New Mexico Bowl-Hawaii at Houston Tim Flores-USA TODAY Sports

Hawaii football, like many of us around the world, gladly turned the page from 2020 to 2021 at the end of last season. Sure, the Warriors had actually performed better than most expected considering the restraints placed on the program by the pandemic. Beat Fresno at their place, upset a hyped Nevada squad. Won a bowl game on the mainland against a strong AAC program. All positive, but let’s be real: 2020 sucked and nobody wants to do that again.

Yet, Hawaii hasn’t played a single game in 2021 and frankly, this year had just been unfathomably awful. Aloha Stadium, home of Hawaii football since 1975, was for all intents and purposes condemned in early 2021. Like, done. Hawaii can’t play there anymore. An unheard of predicament was born: Hawaii had to find a new home for the 2021 season, and unfortunately maybe way beyond just 2021. It’s not every day an FBS program is house hunting.

This setback paled in comparison to others. Legendary quarterback Colt Brennan passed away at an unthinkably young age. Legendary news anchor/Hawaii football play-by-play man Robert Kekaula also passed away this summer. You’d be hard pressed to find a single college football program across America that’s had as heart-wrenching an off-season as Hawaii fans have endured.

Despite it all, Hawaii looks onward. The Rainbow Warriors will play their football games on campus at the Clarence T.C. Ching Complex. A pipedream for decades will come true in the worst of circumstances. Is this is a temporary solution? Could it eventually morph into Hawaii’s permanent home? That’s a debate for another day. For now, the Warriors prep for the 2021 season with adversity on the mind. COVID has not vanished like many of us hoped, and Hawaii has to navigate a fall at Manoa on the fly. There will be plenty of off-the-field noise, but how will the Warriors fare on the field? Let’s take a look.

Offense

Reasons for optimism: Todd Graham’s arrival to Hawaii delivered a deviation away from the traditional run-and-shoot to a run-and-gun system. Heavy on running, but with a healthy dose of deep passes. There were plenty of bumps early on, but the pandemic surely had an influence. Eventually, the offense was quite good, even though not necessarily lighting up the scoreboard.

That might change this fall. Somehow, don’t ask I don’t understand it either, Chevan Cordeiro is a fourth-year Sophomore. Capable of beating opponents with his arm and legs, Cordeiro’s experience will be invaluable. Cordeiro was the first quarterback to lead the Warriors in rushing yards since Michael Carter in 1991. He’ll be armed in the backfield with running back Dae Dae Hunter, who could be one of the breakout names in the Mountain West this fall considering the amount of touches the running backs receive in this offense, both on the ground and through the air. Dior Scott will help in this regard as well. Dedrick Parson, a transfer from Howard, has the potential to help too.

...but let’s be real: the superstar in this offense is Calvin “75-yard Touchdown” Turner Jr. Last season, Turner Jr. lined up at running back, wide receiver, quarterback and returned kickoffs and punts. With an experienced offensive line that returns three long-time starters (Michael Eletise recently retired) paving the way, Hawaii’s backfield can rival anyone in the Mountain West in terms of rushing production this fall.

Reasons for concern: It would be nice to see more depth emerge at the skill positions. While there is optimism that incoming talent and genuine practice reps will help this, it’s fair to note that Chevan Cordeiro lead the team in passing (understandable) and rushing. The second-leading rusher was Miles Reed, who has since transferred. Turner Jr. was third, and also led the team in receiving. Senior wide receiver Jared Smart was second in receiving, Rico Bussey third. Bussey is now in camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Point being: Cordeiro and Turner Jr. accounted for much of Hawaii’s offensive production. Football is a savage game, and an injury to either Cordeiro or Turner Jr. could prove catastrophic to the team. The Warriors would be wise to find some other playmakers this camp, and a quality reserve quarterback considering the playing style of Cordeiro. That’s the only real concern for me: the heavy reliance on Cordeiro/Turner Jr.

The recent transfer of quarterback Boone Abbott means true freshman Brayden Schager is likely to be the backup. The staff is high on Schager, but obviously would prefer to not have a freshman forced into action. Cordeiro needs to keep his jersey clean.

Key Stat: Turner Jr. amassed 1,201 total yards across rushing, receiving, and return yardage stats in an abbreviated season in 2020. If he stays healthy, Turner Jr. has All-American upside. A unique player, he plays no specific position and all of them at once. Turner Jr. surprisingly turned down the chance to enter the 2021 NFL Draft and could end up being one of the greatest Warriors ever by the conclusion of 2021.

Wildcard: Jonah Panoke. The redshirt freshman has flashed potential, and the exit of Rico Bussey opens up opportunity. Really, there are several wide receivers that could breakout this fall. Zion Bowens, Aaron Cephus, Nick Mardner will also get first cracks at the non-Jared Smart receiver spots. The coaching staff really likes Tru Edwards and Jalen Walthall.

Defense:

Reasons for optimism: Plenty. After a rough start to the 2020 season, the Warrior defense signaled a turning point against Nevada, holding the vaunted Wolf Pack offense to 21 points. Carson Strong finished with 168 passing yards. The Warriors stymied a quality Houston offense in the bowl game weeks later, solidifying the growing feeling that Hawaii’s defense might finally be emerging as a strength. Unusual for a historically run-and-shoot program that prefers to score a ton of points instead of preventing them.

Linebacker Darius Muasau ranked 5th nationally in tackles last season, he’ll be one the conference’s best defenders. Penei Pavihi is a talented, experience linebacker hoping to stay healthy this season. Quentin Frazier was a revelation for Graham’s defense, and Isaiah Tufaga provides depth.

In the secondary, Cortez Davis is a star at cornerback and Cameron Lockridge performed well in 2020. Kai Kaneshiro is another year experienced, and the return of Eugene Ford will provide a jolt to a very good back four. Ford missed the 2020 season with an injury. Cornerback Michael Washington and linebacker Jeremiah Pritchard make this one of the deepest overall defenses in years. This defense has the potential to be one of Hawaii’s best in a long time.

Reasons for concern: I’ve belabored this point in the past, and will continue to do so: the defensive line could stand to see some improvement. The entire starting group of Justus Tavai, Blessman Ta’ala, and Duan Matthews return for this season. Oklahoma transfer Zacchaeus McKinney and Utah transfer Pita Tonga provide depth to a group that needs it. Hawaii’s rush defense ranked 105th nationally last season, while being ranked a stout 21st in the passing yards allowed category, so the weakness of the defense is not in the back seven. Again, this group isn’t bad by any means, but it’s not dominating either. Maybe the new additions like defensive end O’Tay Baker can change that.

Key Stat: Hawaii ranked 73rd in Team Sacks in 2020. Again, it’s been a long time since opposing offenses feared Hawaii’s edge rushers. The Rainbow Warrior defense will be very good in 2021, bank on it. To be special/great, however, Hawaii needs to find a way to win the point of attack on the defensive line.

Wildcard: Zacchaeus McKinney. Hawaii used to fill the depth gaps with junior college transfers. That route is still available, but Hawaii dipped into the transfer portal to fix some of the issues on the DL. McKinney brings elite P5 experience to Manoa, and could prove to be a big factor up front.

Special Teams:

Reason for optimism: The gang is back and intact. Kicker Matthew Shipley was 6/7 on field goals and perfect on all 26 PATs. Punter Adam Stack averaged 43.4 yards per punt, and Calvin Turner Jr. is a menace of a return man. This unit should be a strength again.

Reasons for concern: Hawaii ranked 107th in punt return yards allowed last season. At times, Todd Graham warned the special teams about the return prowess of opposing teams, only to watch the special teams still concede big numbers. That will certainly be a focus for this underappreciated facet of football.

Key Stat: Calvin Turner Jr. ranked 17th nationally in kickoff returns last season, and he’s likely to return punts this season as well. Enjoy #7, Warriors fans. He is truly unique.

Wildcard: I’m not sure there is one? Only injuries would supplant the likes of Turner Jr, Stack, and Shipley.

2021 Hawaii 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

Thoughts: Early season traditions remain intact for Hawaii football: Week 0 football game, multiple Pac-12 opponents in the first month. The opener against UCLA might present the most difficult task of the entire season. Sure, the likes of Nevada, San Jose State might have more Top 25 votes, but UCLA has Power 5 talent. The following week, Hawaii plays their first ever football game on campus against Portland State. Mind-blowing. Portland State opted out of spring football, so this game will be the Vikings’ first since 2019.

The following two weeks present an opportunity for Hawaii to make a statement. Oregon State won’t be easy by any means, but on paper it’s a beatable Power 5 opponent. San Jose State returns to Hawaii again after having the 2020 game venue changed to Aloha Stadium due to county and state restrictions in California. If Hawaii can steal one of these games, or enter dream land, win both, the Warriors would make the West Division favorites nervous.

Before the bye, the Warriors travel to Las Cruces to play New Mexico State. The Warriors will play the Aggies twice in 2021, home-and-away. Don’t ask, I don’t know why. Fresno State comes to Clarence T.C. Ching Complex right at the midway point of the season.

Hawaii plays Nevada after the bye. The Wolf Pack had their dream season ruined by UH in 2020 and will be on alert this time around. Hawaii absolutely obliterated the Wolf Pack in Reno in 2019 to the tune of 54-3. Holy redacted cuss word. New Mexico State’s return game and a trip to Logan, Utah close out October.

The final month is a wild ride, hosting San Diego State in a seemingly growing rivalry game, before traveling to UNLV to play in the Raiders fancy new stadium. The final two games are against Mountain Time Zone teams Colorado State and Wyoming. Seriously, MWC schedule makers. What the heck. Making Hawaii play in Laramie the last week of the season? You are all very mean.

Best Case Scenario: Hawaii fails to beat UCLA, but pushes the Bruins to the brink. The Rainbow Warriors sweep Oregon State and San Jose State, signaling the beginning of a special season. The Rainbow Warriors finish the regular season 10-3 and hope the divisional tiebreakers break in their favor after the West Division tears itself apart. Hawaii bucks expectations in the West again and finishes the season with double-digit wins.

Worst Case Scenario: The month of September proves to be a minefield the Warriors are unable to sift through unscathed. Losses to UCLA, Oregon State, San Jose State mean the Warriors have 3 losses entering October. A tough conference schedule sees too many close contests end in losses. Hawaii finishes 5-8, wondering what could have been with a few breaks going the other way.

What’s probably going to happen: Peaks and valleys. Great results, tough results. Hawaii has a good defense and a clock-controlling offense that should keep the Warriors from being blown out all season. Most games, while not necessarily wins, should be within reach. Playing on campus could either galvanize this team and the fans, or could prove to be a letdown compared to Aloha Stadium. There’s no telling until it’s experienced. I think Hawaii will upset San Jose State (that was really weird to type), but fail to win many road games. The health of Chevan Cordeiro and Calvin Turner Jr. is paramount.

This time of year, the fan of every non-frontrunner will swear up and down that their team is being overlooked, disrespected. Some might be right, most are wrong. Hawaii being picked to finish 5th in the West Division gives the Warriors the chance to operate out of the spotlight. The pressure is on Nevada and San Jose State to perform, while a talented Hawaii team can lurk, ready to play saboteur. This team is genuinely being underestimated and can very easily be a thorn in the side of Mountain West teams dreaming big, ignoring UH.

I’ll predict Hawaii to finish 8-5 (5-3) and play...somewhere..in a bowl game. Sure, injuries could easily derail the season into a bowl-missing failure, but I think much like 2019, this team has the ability to upset and surpass the preseason West Division favorites.

Here’s to Hawaii playing a safe and full season as we hope to put this pandemic to bed.

RIP Colt and Robert.