Instability is the word that comes to mind when describing Hawaii Rainbow Warriors football. In 1977, Hawaii hired Dick Tomey to be head coach. Over the course of the next 38 years through the dreaded 2015 season, Hawaii would have 6 head football coaches in that span. Dick Tomey, Bob Wagner, Fred von Appen, June Jones, Greg McMackin, and Norm Chow. Seven, I suppose, if you include Chris Naeole’s stint as interim coach.
Nick Rolovich took over in 2016, only six years ago, and the Warriors will enter the 2022 season with their third head coach during that period. An unusual amount of shifting for a typically stable program. This past winter though, the program was anything but stable.
Todd Graham was not what many expected when athletic director Dave Matlin hired the Texan to replace Nick Rolovich after the UH alum left for Washington State. Graham had no ties to Hawaii whatsoever, unless you count vacation visits. In that case, a bazillion people have ties to Hawaii. Matlin’s line of thinking was clear: Graham has won everywhere he’s been, and if he can consistently finish 8-5/7-6 every year with an occasional breakout season, the fans will be thrilled. Winning solves everything, right?
Graham’s results were a mixed bag. The team went to a bowl game despite the complications of the 2020 pandemic, and Hawaii was bowl bound again in 2021. It was far from perfect, especially on offense. Sprinkled with hints of nepotism, the results annoyed fans who had sky high expectations for an offense led by star quarterback Chevan Cordeiro.
COVID in 2020. Aloha Stadium was condemned in early 2021. Again, instability is the word for Hawaii football, but surely things would smoothen out over the course of the 2022 off-season?
Not even close. Word began to leak of the toxic environment happening behind the scenes of Todd Graham’s program. This led to an exodus of players, headlined initially by Chevan Cordeiro. When Hawaii’s chosen quarterback decided the situation was too much, a now infamous state senate meeting was called to look into the matter. This debacle led to even more player departures, and ultimately Todd Graham resigning from his head coaching position. Good grief, can this program go one winter without drama?
Even the hiring process wasn’t without drama. June Jones was pegged by many to become the new head coach, Jones himself publicly stumping for the job. Dave Matlin instead sided with Timmy Chang. Yes, the former Saint Louis School and Hawaii Warrior quarterback, the legend himself. Chang was a wide receivers coach at
Colorado State Nevada, where the Wolf Pack put together a talented and dominant offense. The decision was controversial to some, but once Timmy Chang established the #braddahood, he galvanized the fan base.
The drama is over. We hope the instability is coming to an end too. Attempting to reverse the damage the transfer portal had on the roster in December/January, Timmy Chang has 53 (!!) new players on the roster this fall, including 27 FBS/FCS/DII/DIII/JC transfers.
The #braddahood has created excitement and extinguished the negative vibes following the program ever since Rolovich left. Now, can the Warriors win games this fall? Let’s dig in…
Reasons for optimism: Hawaii is shifting from the run-and-gun under Todd Graham or, whatever you want to call that offense, to a run-and-shoot with air raid concepts under Timmy Chang. A marriage between the system Timmy played in with UH back in the early 2000s, and the system he coached in at Nevada. This alone creates optimism; Hawaii is now being led by an offensive-minded coach.
For a team collectively dealing with a lot of new faces at positions across the depth chart, somehow the offensive line remains a strength. Yes, the unit conceded a lot of sacks last season (Warriors ranked 103rd in sacks allowed), but it’s fair to say Hawaii’s offensive scheme was let’s say…lacking, last season. Ilm Manning, Micah Vanterpool, and Solo Vaipulu are experienced studs that will lead the way for this offense. There was emerging depth being developed organically, but the Warriors added transfers Luke Felix-Fualalo (Utah) and Micah Mariteragi (Virginia) for good measure.
Hawaii’s offensive line should be plenty good and running back Dedrick Parson figures to thrive. Parson is a dark horse to end the season on an all-conference list. There is talent behind him, but it’s unproven as of the moment. Junior running back Nasjzaé Bryant-Lelei is expected to help spell Parson.
Also of note: there are big expectations for tight end Jordan Murray, who could break out this season. Remember that name.
Reasons for concern: This one is obvious: no more Chevan Cordeiro. The Warrior great who leaves behind a complicated legacy is now playing for Brent Brennan at San Jose State. Brayden Schager started several games for the Warriors as a true freshman last fall, and he’ll compete with FBS transfers Cammon Cooper (Washington State), who was present for spring practice, and Joey Yellen (Pittsburgh) who joined the team this summer. Schager is the presumed favorite to win the job.
It must be said, Hawaii is fairly unproven at wide receiver too. The Warriors lose their top three receivers. Calvin Turner Jr. graduated, and Nick Mardner plays for Cincinnati now. Zion Bowens and Jonah Panoke have shown flashes, but the fact that these are the leading returners at the position speaks volumes to the inexperience.
I’ll be saying this several times, but it’s true: this doesn’t mean that these units can’t be good, only that the lack of experience leads to questions and doubt. On paper, UH appears less talented and experienced at quarterback and wide receiver. Can the expertise of Timmy Chang and new offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker make up for this? Time will tell.
Key Stat: Only 4 returning starters, with Chevan Cordeiro, Calvin Turner Jr, Nick Mardner, and Dae Dae Hunter to a lesser extent no longer on the team. That’s a lot of lost talent to account for.
Wildcard: Offensive lineman Micah Vanterpool noted at Mountain West media days that freshman running Tylan Hines and freshman wide receiver Jalen Walthall have impressed. Considering how wide open this roster is for playing time, that’s as good of insight as we’ll learn for now. Redshirt freshman running back Jordan Johnson recently had a long touchdown in a scrimmage.
Reasons for optimism: Blessman Ta’ala, one of the most underrated Hawaii Warriors ever. The steadfast presence in the middle is back for his senior season. The defense has been unquestionably gouged by the transfer portal, but Ta’ala stayed and as a result, all is not lost in rush defense. He’ll be the nose tackle in what’s expected to be a 3-4 scheme.
Linebackers Penei Pavihi and Isaiah Tufaga will ease the pain of losing Darius Muasau (not really, but they’re good linebackers). This position lacks overall experience but has talent.
While the transfer portal does taketh, it can giveth as well. Hawaii added the following FBS transfers: DB McKenzie Barnes (Arizona), LB Steele Dubar (Colorado), DB Virdel Edwards II (Iowa State), DE Andrew Faoliu (Oregon), DB JoJo Forest (Oregon State), DB Malik Hausman (Arizona), DB Kaulana Makaula (USC), LB/DE Wynden Ho’ohuli (Nebraska), DB Meki Pei (Washington), DE Mataio Soli (Arkansas), DL Anthony Sagapolutele (UNLV). Unfortunately, Barnes has sustained a serious injury.
Yes, yes. All the caveats apply. “They had a transfer for a reason”, not every one of these transfers will be a raging success. But if defensive coordinator Jacob Yoro can find a star or two out of this group, maybe Hawaii can mitigate the massive losses on this side of the ball. That is a LOT of DB transfers, surely a few of them should help the secondary succeed, right?
Defensive linemen Tariq Jones and Jonah Kahahawai-Welch have the potential for breakout seasons. There’s some talent on this defense, it’s just unproven.
Reasons for concern: Eh, I won’t spend a ton of time on this. One does not have to be a genius to see why there is concern for this unit. First off, yes yes I know. Todd Graham is a dirty name on Oahu, and a deserved one at that. That said, he undeniably turned Hawaii’s defense around in boom-bust fashion. The team forced turnovers like crazy. His coaching expertise will be missed, to an extent.
Darius Muasau will play in the NFL. Justus Tavai and Jonah Laulu are big losses on the defensive line. Khory Bethley is an all-time UH great. I cannot in good faith just say that UH will easily replace these players. Hawaii has August and September to build chemistry before conference play. This young staff and inexperienced roster have work to do if this unit is to withstand a drop off this fall.
Even Alabama would enter the season with question marks if their defense was replacing 10/12 starters. Coach Chang has tried to glue the pieces back together with transfers. Will it work? I have faith Hawaii’s offense will surprise, but in my opinion, the defense regressing feels inevitable. Whether it’s regressing a little or a lot is the question.
Key Stat: Last year’s defense conceded 446 yards per game and 31.4 points per game. So for all the hoopla of lost stars, it’s not like the unit was balling out by any means. It cannot get too much worse, right? ...right?
Wildcard: Defensive end/linebacker Wynden Ho’ohuli. Hawaii lost star power this off-season, but the football gods might’ve shined on UH in a big way with Ho’ohuli. The former top recruit in the state of Hawaii wasn’t as fond of Nebraska as expected, and transfers back with 4 years of eligibility remaining. This guy has all-conference upside. He might play linebacker, but he’s just too talented to not use as a pass rusher.
Reason for optimism: Who says the Warriors are lacking experience? Kicker and punter Matthew Shipley is back! Shipley was 18/21 on field goals last season with a long of 49. The Warriors might have some concerns this fall, but the kicking game isn’t one of them.
Reasons for concern: I’m sad typing this: no more Calvin Turner Jr. Believe it or not, Hawaii only had 69 return yards last season when returning punts, so I guess there’s only room to grow. Still, Turner Jr. was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. Can the Warriors find a new threat?
Key Stat: The Warriors ranked 105th in punt return defense in 2021. Here’s hoping UH can turn that ugly number into a strength this fall.
Wildcard: Any of the skill position players? It’s early, but Dior Scott, Keith Moton, Tylan Hines, and Dedrick Parson were some names that popped up in the punter returner competition.
2022 Hawaii Schedule
Date - Opponent
Aug. 27 - VANDERBILT
Sept. 3 - WESTERN KENTUCKY
Sept. 10 - @Michigan
Sept. 17 - DUQUESNE
Sept. 24 - @New Mexico State
Oct. 1 - Bye
Oct. 8 - @San Diego State*
Oct. 15 - NEVADA*
Oct. 22 - @Colorado State*
Oct. 29 - WYOMING*
Nov. 5 - @Fresno State*
Nov. 12 - UTAH STATE*
Nov. 19 - UNLV*
Nov. 26 - @San Jose State*
*denotes conference game
Home games in caps and bold
Thoughts: While the Warriors do have questions marks on the roster, they do have this going for them: the 2022 schedule is tame compared to past schedules. That first month of the season will likely reveal what the 2022 Warriors are capable of. Hawaii is currently a Vegas underdog to both Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky. Duquesne comes to the islands a few weeks later, and the month of September closes with New Mexico State on the road. Yes, I know. I didn’t forget Michigan; we all know the real objective there is for UH to emerge healthy.
Of those games, only Michigan is objectively a likely loss. Hawaii has 4-1 upside to begin the season, and that would set them up for a surprise bowl berth. As evidenced by the noted spread, Hawaii is no sure thing to beat the Commodores or Hilltoppers, but the Warriors will take their chances at Clarence T.C. Ching
Again, Hawaii will tell us who they are. Emerge from that stretch 3-2 or 4-1, and suddenly optimism grows that the detractors are wrong about this team. Exit September 2-3 or 1-4, and well...that’s where the growing pains come in.
In conference play, Hawaii draws Fresno State, San Diego State, and San Jose State on the road in the West Division. The teams picked 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in the preseason poll. Lovely. The positive here, is that the projected bottom dwellers (UNLV/Wyoming/Nevada) have to play on Oahu. Opportunities to pad the win total and play in the Hawaii Bowl.
Yes, the roster has much to sort out, but the schedule plays nicely for UH this fall. The path to a bowl game is visible, but it all starts with that first month. UH needs to exit September 3-2 at the minimum.
Best Case Scenario: August is an enormous success, as the horde of transfers has a hit rate that would make any General Manager jealous. The defense is revamped, and Hawaii finds a quarterback who restores Hawaii’s lofty standards on offense immediately. The Warriors create shades of the 2021 Utah State Aggies and their combination of optimism, new energy, transfers, and forgiving schedule leads to a shock debut season for Timmy Chang. Hawaii finishes the regular season 9-4, narrowly misses out on playing in the MWC championship game and beats some AAC school in the Hawaii Bowl. The hype train is sprinting heading into off-season 2023.
Worst Case Scenario: Hawaii’s worst fears are realized. The transfers infused into the program prove why they needed to transfer in the first play. They range from junk-to-just okay, and Hawaii’s defense takes a turn for the worst. Hawaii drops both home games to open the season, and Michigan beats up the Warriors and sends them home with a long list of injuries. The Warriors cannot build chemistry or stay healthy in time to make a dent in conference play. Football isn’t played on paper, but in this case the Warriors are exactly what some experts thought they’d be: an inexperienced staff leading an inexperienced team. A harsh rebuilding season, the Warriors finish 3-10 and look to the December recruiting window for help.
What’s probably going to happen: Combination of highlights and lowlights. The Warriors are going to have some games where their collective inexperience shows, while also offering positive glimpses of what’s to come. An early season home loss to Western Kentucky frustrates fans, but a midseason victory over Colorado State ignites the fan base as the Warriors illustrate their potential. There are some humbling losses on the road in California, but Timmy Chang and company lay down the foundation that will get Hawaii back to the top of the conference in a few years. The Vegas over/under for Hawaii is at about 4.5. A bounce or two along the way will determine if Warriors beat expectations with 5 or 6 wins.
Final takeaway: Be patient, Rainbow Warriors fans. Timmy Chang has washed away the negativity that Todd Graham permeated throughout the program. The #braddahood is for real. That said, there is no denying that the Warriors lost a plethora of key players. Yes, they’ve added talent too, but summer and fall camp alone might not be enough time for this team to assimilate. IF, I say if...the team ends up struggling this fall, keep in mind that Coach Chang is a young head coach leading a young coaching staff and an inexperienced team. A humbling debut season would not be an indictment of their abilities or what’s to come.
Dream of another 1999 season but show some aloha and grace if this proves to be a learning experience. Good things will come from the Timmy Chang era.
Hawaii opens the 2022 season on Saturday, August 27th against the Vanderbilt Commodores of the SEC.