Hawaii Football 2018 Preview: Somewhere over the Rainbow Warriors

Hawaii jumped the sinking WAC ship after the 2011 season, joining the Mountain West along with contemporaries Fresno State and Nevada. They have been a massive disappointment since, failing to secure a single winning season. It wasn’t that long ago that this program was regularly competing for WAC titles. They had an undefeated regular season in 2007, and for decades, they had a penchant for ruining traditional powers’ vacations. Staying up late to watch Hawaii became something of a tradition for college football fans and degenerate gamblers. The silky smooth voice of Robert Kekaula gave us all sweet dreams.

June Jones guided Hawaii during easily its most successful period from 1999-2007. The Warriors became famous in these years for almost comically high-powered offenses. Hawaii would routinely hang 50-spots on teams and make it look easy. Former QB Timmy Chang set records for total yards and touchdowns during his UH career. Colt Brennan, a June Jones reclamation project, followed that up with a record-setting career of his own.

Both quarterbacks benefited heavily from Jones’s Run and Shoot offense:

Hawaii looked poised to be a thorn in the side of every team they played for years to come, but Jones summarily abandoned the program after their magical 2007 run to take the job at SMU, and Hawaii has not been the same since. Greg McMackin produced ho-hum results for four seasons, and Norm Chow nearly dismantled the program completely in the next four. Things looked grim.

Former Hawaii quarterback Nick Rolovich took over in 2016, and the gains were apparent and immediate. He took the program to its first bowl game since 2010 in his first season and was hailed a savior. The Rainbow Warriors took a step back, however, in 2017, and Rolovich is tasked with getting the 2016 mojo back. He’ll have to do it, however, with a young, inexperienced team. Part of his strategy is to return to the Run and Shoot. He ran it as a QB under Jones from 2000-2001, so he’s familiar. While likely to be a boon for ticket sales, Hawaii has been recruiting a different sort of athlete since 2012. It remains to be seen whether a Timmy Chang or Colt Brennan is on this roster.

The Players (Offense)

The QB

2017 starting quarterback Dru Brown is gone, having transferred to Oklahoma State. Brown was a key figure in Hawaii’s 2016 resurgence. Over the past two seasons as a starter, he threw for over 5,200 yards and 37 touchdowns. Those aren’t quite Chang/Brennan numbers, but Brown wasn’t asked to air it out much. He served as a steady hand for a balanced offense and had the running ability to open up the field.

To replace him, Hawaii will likely look to red-shirt sophomore Cole MacDonald, who threw all of nine passes last season. That’s still nine more than any other QB on the roster. Chevan Cordeiro is an exciting true freshman and local product who starred at powerhouse St. Louis high school. MacDonald may give them the best chance to win now, and starting Cordeiro on a team with this much uncertainty may be setting him up to fail.

The Supporting Cast

John Ursua, Hawaii's last, best hope at receiver

Dylan Collie, younger brother of former NFL receiver Austin Collie and 2017 leading receiver is gone as well, having transferred to BYU. You might be sensing a theme here. Replacing Collie’s production might not be as challenging as replacing Brown’s, however, because John Ursua returns. Ursua was among the leading receivers in the country before going down with a knee injury. If he’s healthy, the ‘Bows will at least have one competent receiver for their new QB to throw to.

At running back, Diocemy Saint Juste set the single-season school record for most rushing yards last season. You guessed it, he’s gone too. Eerily, the only returning back with any experience is Freddie Holly III, who carried the ball nine times last season. Holly will likely get the bulk of the touches in the run game. In the new offense, however, there isn’t likely to be much of a run game. Meanwhile, either Hekili Keliliki, Kaiwi Chung, or Dayton Furuta will provide some muscle in short yardage as well as additional pass protection.

Finally, the offensive line from a year ago is also decimated. Hawaii fans are likely to see four new faces up front. The only returner from a year ago, Asotui Eli, will likely move from center to left tackle in order to shore up the blindside pass protection.

The Players (Defense)

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Hawaii was among the nation’s worst defensive teams last year. To his credit, Rolovich recognized this as a weakness and brought in Corey Batoon to revamp this side of the ball. Batoon spent last season retooling Florida Atlantic’s defense under Lane Kiffin. With the Run and Shoot’s emphasis on quick possessions, defenders spend more time on the field. They fatigue more quickly and allow more points. Traditional statistics will not tell the whole story of this group this season. In Jones’s heyday, his defenses regularly gave up 40+ points, but if the offense puts up 50, all the defense needs to do is make 2-3 stops per game. If they can force turnovers and make the other team work for its yards and points, all the better.

Position Groups

All three starting linebackers return this season. Though they didn’t perform particularly well in 2017, an additional year of experience should make a difference for 2018. Jahlani Tavai led the team in tackles last season and played his way onto the All-MWC second team. He’s joined by Solomon Matautia and Jeremiah Pritchard, both of whom flashed penchants for big plays last season. This is the only unit on either side of the ball that will benefit from anything resembling continuity, so Batoon has his work cut out for him.

The defensive line is a black hole. No one from last season returns, and to fill the gap, Rolovich recruited five junior college defensive linemen. They’ll compete with two true freshmen to fill the rotation up front. This isn’t like Fresno State who lost their starters but retained experienced players. This unit is being rebuilt from scratch and could well be a serious deficiency.

In the secondary, Rjosterman Farris II and Eugene Ford have the corner positions on lock-down, but both safety positions are smoldering craters. Ikem Okeke is converting from linebacker to fill one spot, but the other remains wide open, and whoever fills it will either be a newcomer to the program or shifting from another position. Either way, he will have zero FBS experience as a safety.

The Coach

Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich looking pleased

Nick Rolovich, adhering to a common theme among MWC coaches, came home to Hawaii in 2016. He played quarterback on the rock from 2000-2001 under June Jones after starring at City College of San Francisco. He usurped Timmy Chang as the starting QB in 2001 and went on to have a magical senior season, throwing for over 3,300 yards and 34 touchdowns while going 8-1 as a starter. In one of the most memorable Hawaii football games of all time, he tossed 8 TDs and over 500 yards in a 72-45 victory over eighth-ranked BYU.

He spent the next two seasons with the Denver Broncos and Rhein Fire of NFL Europe before embarking on a four-year Arena Football League career. During these years, he also spent time as an assistant coach at San Marin High School, Hawaii (his first homecoming), and City College of San Francisco. He worked as the quarterbacks coach under McMackin from 2008-2009, earning a promotion to offensive coordinator in 2010. After McMackin’s ouster, Rolovich took the offensive coordinator job at Nevada, where he spent four seasons before coming back to Hawaii again to accept the head coaching position.

Hawaii fans, having suffered through four years of Norm Chow looking befuddled on the sidelines, were understandably enthused. When Rolovich over-achieved with a less-than-talented squad in year one, finishing 7-7, winning a bowl game, and generating new motivational tactics, the expectations for 2017 were about to erupt (too soon?).

The lava never quite flowed, however. The team went just 3-9, and to make matters worse, several of their better players left the program after the season.

New Year, Same Challenges

Rolovich has his work cut out for him heading into 2018. With few experienced players returning, he made a vow to return to the vaunted Run and Shoot offense of Hawaii’s glory years. Whether this is an actual winning strategy on his part or he just wanted to buy himself another year or two remains to be seen.

College football is objectively worse when Hawaii is down. Back in ’07, they were on TV late at night taking down big-name opponents and humiliating opposing coaches by forcing them to wear Hawaiian shirts and leis on the sideline. While those halcyon days are unlikely to return, it would be quite a thrill to see the Rainbow Warriors back in contention for conference titles and hosting their own bowl game every Christmas Eve. For the sake of the sport, I hope Rolovich can bring them back.

The Schedule (with Milquetoast Predictions!)

August 25 – @Colorado State – L

September 1 – vs. Navy – L

An inexperienced defense will always struggle against the triple-option. If Hawaii really is sticking to the Run and Shoot philosophy, you will not find a game between more diametrically opposed teams than this one. Expect the time of possession to be something like 55-5 in favor of Navy. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo is from Hawaii and played quarterback for the ‘Bows from 1987-89, leading them to their first ever bowl game his senior season. Expect his Naval Academy to run through his alma mater fairly easily.

September 8 – vs. Rice – W

Hawaii has the good fortune of facing Rice, who look to be one of the worst teams in the nation this year. Even still, if this game weren’t in Honolulu, I’d have a hard time picking Hawaii to win.

September 15 – @Army – L

Another triple-option team, and this time, the Rainbow Warriors have to travel to the east coast. The weather should be nice in September, but the timezone difference is brutal. Hawaii’s relatively solid record at home, even during lean years, speaks to just how much long travel hurts teams who come to the rock, especially in the fourth quarter. The inverse is also true. Ask June Jones about the time he brought the best team in school history to New Orleans.

September 22 – vs. Duquesne – W

Hawaii is not going to be very good this year, but Duquesne will not be another Howard or Idaho State.

September 29 – @San Jose State – L

If Hawaii does indeed lose this game, it will be clear that they are in for a long season. SJSU provided the ‘Bows their only conference win last year, a 37-26 late-night affair on the rock that featured a very funny touchdown celebration. SJSU doesn’t figure to be much better this year, but Hawaii is materially worse than they were a year ago. I hope no one who is unfamiliar with MWC football chooses this game as the one to tune into to learn about the conference. San Jose State, in its infinite wisdom, chose to kick this game off at 4:00, so the game will be boring, hot, and poorly attended. It’s not even on TV, so I guess I don’t have to worry about it.

October 6 – vs. Wyoming – L

Josh Allen – who drives an ice cream truck covered in human skulls – needed overtime to beat the Rainbow Dubs last season in Laramie 28-21, but the game was something of an anomaly. Allen went just 9-for-19, and Hawaii gained over 450 yards. Still, they managed to lose by turning the ball over twice in critical situations and giving up a kickoff return for a touchdown. Wyoming wins this year because they have built an absolute bully of a defense.  It won’t be enough to compete with the upper echelon of the conference, but lower-tier teams like Hawaii don’t stand a chance.

These two teams play for a trophy so few people care about that it got lost and had to be replaced.

October 13 – @BYU – L

BYU was rewarded for having a terrible season and a team full of violent pretend Mormons with a trip to a tropical paradise over Thanksgiving weekend last year. Seems fair. They defeated the ‘Bows 30-20 in what had to be the low point of Nick Rolovich’s life. Hawaii’s defense got run all over by something called Squally Canada. It was a sad day on the rock.

BYU hasn’t gotten any better, but neither has Hawaii, and the game is in Provo this time. Hawaii has only won one game in the mountain timezone since joining the Mountain West. Expect the trend to continue.

October 20 – vs. Nevada – L

Hawaii went to Reno last season and lost a sloppy 35-21 game to the Wolf Pack. Again, defense was their downfall as they gave up 241 yards to Kelton Moore and two touchdowns in the final three-and-a-half minutes of the first half. They get Nevada at home this time, but don’t expect a different result. The Wolf Pack figure to be a much better team than their 2017 iteration while Hawaii continues to trend downward.

October 27 – @Fresno State – L

November 3 – vs. Utah State – L

Utah State figures to surprise some people this season. Their trip to the island should be a successful one. They thumped Hawaii 38-0 at home last season, and while the long trip might make this game a little closer, the Aggies are simply a much better team.

November 17 – vs. UNLV – L

UNLV pulled out a 31-23 win in Vegas last season, and the Rebels should be better than they were a year ago. That relatively close score happened without QB Amari Rodgers in the lineup. Assuming Rodgers is healthy, the Rainbow Warriors defense is simply outmatched.

November 24 – @San Diego State – L

SDSU came to the island last season and put a 28-7 hurting on the ‘Bows. The Aztecs have lost Rashaad Penny – who went for 253 yards in the game – to the NFL, but they’ll still bring the grinding style of football that chews up and spits out inferior opponents. More distressing for Hawaii fans is that the defense that Penny shredded is still there and doesn’t need an NFL running back to expose its weaknesses. At one point, SDSU gave the ball to Penny six times in a row from its own one yard-line. On the sixth play, Penny scored on a 63-yard run. That’s six straight carries, 99 yards, and a touchdown. Yes, Penny’s great, but a defense that gives up a sequence like that needs more than a few JuCo linemen to fix it.

Total: 2-11 (0-8)

Last Word: Hawaii Needs to Walk before They Run, Aim before They Shoot

Hawaii looks to be in even worse shape than they were last season, but even if the season goes off the rails, getting rid of Rolovich would be a mistake. Norm Chow left a once-proud program in ruins after four years of mismanagement, poor recruiting, and general incompetence. These are just the growing pains of getting it back on track. That’s a train metaphor for a team that plays on an island.

Next Up: Nevada!

Jay Norvell steps into his second year with the arrow pointing up, but how much better can the Wolf Pack be this season? Even more importantly, with the success of the Nevada basketball team, do fans even remember that they play football?

About Daniel Scarpa 6 Articles
Full-time teacher, part-time blogger based in CA.