Blue Ribbon Preview: Hawaii
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Norm Chow inherited a team that couldn't produce a winning record in the lowly Western Athletic Conference in 2011. Imagine the task the Warriors face in 2012 at their new Mountain West Conference digs, with non-league games at USC and BYU thrown in for good measure.
Phase I of Chow's rebuilding plan was implemented this spring as he overhauled the offense, defense and special teams of the Warriors, who finished 6-7 last season, prompting head coach Greg McMackin to retire a year earlier than planned. He received a nice cash prize of $600,000 to move on, clearing the way for Chow, who agreed to a $545,000 yearly salary to coach the flagship school of his home state.
Most people turning 66 are thinking about trips to the grandkids' house on the weekend, not visiting the homes of the mighty USC Trojans or BYU Cougars. But to hear Chow tell it, this is something he's waited for since his prep days on Oahu too many years ago to count.
"It's an honor and a privilege to be able to come home and be head coach of Hawaii," Chow said. "We have a lot of work ahead of us. We want to make this football team something the state of Hawaii can take pride in. It's a challenge, but one I'm excited about."
Chow put his touch on practically everything since leaving behind Utah at the Sun Bowl as offensive coordinator for the Utes. A local reporter covering the game, won by Utah over former Hawaii offensive coordinator Paul Johnson's Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, had to run after Chow all the way to the parking lot just to get his thoughts.
The former assistant at BYU, NC State, USC and UCLA, as well as a three-year stint as OC of the Tennessee Titans, didn't have time to talk about the win. By then, it was already ancient history in Chow's eyes. His next task was as a head coach, the first time he could call himself that since his prep days on Oahu 40-something years ago.
He had coaches to hire, players to recruit, hands to shake, functions to attend. It was almost more than one man could handle, but Chow did it. He ditched the run-and-shoot for his own version of the West Coast offense. He hired a defensive coordinator whose belief in controlled aggression is shared by Chow. And he hired a coach just for special teams. Nothing was left to chance.
Spring ball was tough, no doubt about it. There were days when making the right plays on any side of the football were few and far between. Exiting the spring game, Chow couldn't choose a starting quarterback and might settle on a guy who was No. 4 on the depth chart in March.
Opening in his old USC haunt is certainly an eye-opener for Chow. The Trojans figure to be one of the nation's best teams. Trips to BYU, San Diego State and Air Force will get all of his attention as well.
"We are moving up into a tough conference with difficult places to play," Chow said. "That's part of the fun and excitement of playing big-time football. But we want our guys to be properly prepared to do their best."
Hawaii returns only a dozen starters from last year's team. If you look closely at the depth chart released after spring football, eight of the projected starters on offense are underclassmen. The defense has more experience with six upperclassmen in the starting ranks, but Chow is fielding a young football team.
"We've got a lot of inexperience, especially our offensive front," Chow said. "It's going to take some time to adjust to the way we want to get things done. This is all part of the process. But I'm confident we have some young men who can get the job done on and off the football field."
Head Coach: Norm Chow (Utah '68)
Record at School: First year
Career Record: First year
• Tommy Lee (Williamette '63) Offensive Coordinator/Receivers
• Thom Kaumeyer (Regents '93) Defensive Coordinator
• Chris Wiesehan (Wabash '94) Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line
• Chris Demarest (Northeastern '88) Safeties/Special Teams Coordinator
• Daronte Jones (Morgan State '01) Secondary
• Lewis Powell (Utah '04) Defensive Line
• Philip Rauscher (Ucla '07) Tight Ends/Recruiting Coordinator
• Tony Tuioti (Hawaii '99) Linebackers
• Keith Uperesa (Byu '84) Running Backs
Junior David Graves (6-0, 195) was to be the heir apparent to Bryant Moniz, despite the difficult switch from the run-and-shoot offense to the more pro-style West Coast. He made two starts in 2011 when Moniz was sidelined by injuries. Graves even completed 63-of-110 passes for 768 yards and five touchdowns.
But despite his experience, Graves did not play well in the spring. He struggled with the system in practice, during the scrimmages and even the spring game where he completed five passes, often bolting from the pocket before playing out the progressions.
Not helping matters were the off-the-field problems of backup signal-caller Caymen Shutter that led to Chow suspending him indefinitely. With Shutter's future uncertain and Graves getting off to a slow start, it cleared the way for Jeremy Higgins (6-1, 200) to leave a lasting impression. The sophomore did just that.
The local boy out of Saint Louis School originally signed with Utah State before transferring to UH last year. Higgins made brief appearances in two games as a true freshman for the Aggies. And while he flew under the radar in the early offseason, he was a blip by the end of spring. He and Graves are bracketed at the top spot entering fall camp.
Chow will make his choice quickly for the man who will be under center in the season opener at USC. But it's likely both guys will see playing time in that difficult nonconference test.
Since 1999, there was rarely more than one back behind or next to the quarterback in the run-and-shoot formation. Now, there will be two more often than not.
Finding enough players to fill the roles of halfback, fullback and slotback was a difficult task for Chow. Slotbacks in the run-and-shoot a year ago, got a shot at halfback in Chow's new system. Guys who were used as pass protectors a year ago found themselves at fullback in the spring.
Who will emerge as the top rusher out of this group is anyone's guess, but exiting spring sophomore Joey Iosefa (6-0, 240), redshirt freshman Will Gregory (6-0, 190), redshirt freshman Justin Vele (6-0, 240) and true freshman Ethan Watanabe (6-2, 265) are the top two halfbacks and fullbacks, respectively.
Iosefa played in all 13 games last season, starting 11 to lead the Warriors in rushing with 548 yards. He scored seven touchdowns. His size makes you think he could be a fullback at some point, but right now, he's the starting halfback and the only one of the top four backs with FBS experience.
With that said, Gregory is the more prototypical halfback with his size, speed and quickness. He redshirted last year after rushing for more than 700 yards and 12 touchdowns in only seven games as a high school senior in 2010. ESPN rated him one of the top 10 backs in the West despite the fact he missed five games because of injury.
Vele and Watanabe have good bulk for fullbacks. Watanabe is also being looked at as a possible tight end. Vele redshirted last year after a stellar career as a linebacker at local high school Farrington. He displayed his athleticism by managing 37.5 sacks and 13 interceptions, including returning four of those for touchdowns during his prep career. It's possible Iosefa could slip in here if Gregory proves his worth at tailback. Chow also used Iosefa, a former prep quarterback, in his version of the Wildcat formation.
This is one area where Chow has no shortage of applicants. With nearly a dozen receivers and slotbacks assigned in the run-and-shoot, the new head coach will only need half that many to make his West Coast attack flow.
The top two receivers at the X position are junior Billy Ray Stutzmann (6-0, 175) and sophomore Trevor Davis (6-1, 170). Stutzmann has been a lifer in the run-and-shoot, dating back to his high school days at local powerhouse Saint Louis, but he made some nice adjustments in the spring. Last season he led the Warriors in receptions with 78 for 910 yards and four touchdowns.
Davis is a capable backup. As a true freshman in 2011 Davis caught 28 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns, including six for 111 yards and a score in the season-ending game with BYU. Graves completed a 79-yard TD pass to Davis in that loss to the Cougars.
The Z receiver is the other wideout in Chow's playbook and will always be lined up the same side as the tight end. Sophomore Scott Harding (5-11, 195) exited spring as the top Z wideout. A six-year veteran of Australian League Football, Harding was chosen first-team freshman All-America by the FWAA as a punt returner.
Harding caught only six passes for 67 yards as a freshman, but he shows good open field moves and quickness and has a chance to be a big part of Hawaii's offense in the fall. His backup is junior Chris Gant (6-0, 180). He redshirted last year after spending two seasons at Moorpark College in California. In 10 games played in 2010, he caught 81 passes for 1,134 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was a first-team JUCO All-America.
Hawaii also has an H-back in certain formations and a slotback. The top guys in the slot are senior Miah Ostrowski (5-9, 175) and Harding. Ostrowski, who was sidelined with injuries off and on in 2011, still caught 65 passes for 687 yards and five touchdowns. He was ranked third in the WAC and 23rd nationally with 6.5 receptions per game.
As for the H-back, look for backup tight ends Clark Evans (6-4, 245) and Darius Bright (6-4, 230) to be in the mix. Bright is a senior who hasn't lived up to his expectations since joining the program two years ago. Evans is a junior with a good skill set.
Bright is also listed as a backup to top tight end Craig Cofer (6-5, 250). The junior is the first tight end Hawaii has had on the field since June Jones took over the program in 1999.
With only two starting offensive linemen returning and just one of those guys projected as a starter in the new West Coast look, it's safe to say Chow is starting from scratch at these five positions. Exiting spring, three of the projected starters -- Blake Muir (6-5, 290) left tackle, Ben Dew (6-3, 305) left guard and center Bill Clarke (6-3, 275) are freshman.
The other two, Dave Lefotu (6-3, 305) at right guard and Jordan Loeffler (6-5, 315) at right tackle, are sophomores. Lefotu appeared in 11 games and started seven of those at right guard last year as a redshirt freshman. He brings the only real experience up front, but look for Clarke to be the leader of the pack.
Senior Levi Legay (6-3, 285) started 11 games at right tackle last year, but a bad back will probably sideline him for good. There are a couple of other players trying to get into school who might have an immediate impact, but Chow won't know until September whether they will be a part of the program.
The backups entering fall camp are sophomore Frank Loyd, Jr. (6-3, 300) at left tackle, junior Hunter Hollowed (6-1, 275) at left guard, sophomore Kody Afusia (6-2, 305) at center, Chauncy Winchester-Makainai (6-4, 325) at right guard and freshman Sean Shigematsu (6-4, 305) at right tackle. He may become a starter if he can overcome an off-season injury.
With only one starter returning up front and the Warriors preparing to employ a new 5-2 defensive formation in the fall, it's easy to see it wasn't just the offense that faced major reconstruction this offseason.
Senior Paipai Falemalu (6-3, 245) is the lone returnee along the forward wall. He made 50 tackles last season, including 4.5 sacks and seven hurries. Projected as a defensive end, Falemalu is equally good against the run and pass. He had six tackles for loss and will be counted on to help in the transition.
Rounding out the front four at end is sophomore Beau Yap (6-1, 260). The Kamehameha Schools standout made only three tackles last year in eight games, but he has a good motor.
The backups are more than capable. The second-string ends are junior Travita Woodard (6-1, 250) and sophomore Marcus Malepeai (6-1, 260). The tackles are senior Haku Correa (6-2, 305) and junior Siasau Matagiese (6-2, 285). All four will see playing time.
Hawaii has the standard 4-3 set when it comes to its front seven, but Chow has plans for this group that may have returning junior starter Art Laurel (6-0, 235) standing up as part of a five-man front with two linebackers and four defensive backs.
Laurel is the Sam linebacker in the 4-3. Last year, he started 10 games at outside linebacker and defensive end, finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 61. He was third in the WAC and 24th nationally in sacks with nine. His 14.5 tackles for loss ranked 55th in the country. He can make plays.
Joining him in the middle are T.J. Taimatuia (6-3, 235) and George Daily-Lyles (5-11, 230). Daily-Lyles is a junior who started one game last year, finishing with 10 tackles and one pass breakup. Taimatuia was used mainly on special teams but did have a sack and a fumble recovery against UC Davis.
There is inexperience among the backups as well. Junior Kamalani Alo (6-2, 215) is behind Daily-Lyles, junior Brenden Daley (6-3, 255) has Taimatuia's back and senior Darryl McBride, Jr. (6-2, 200) will be behind Laurel.
McBride had three tackles in nine appearances, Daley redshirted and Alo was a backup safety who appeared in 13 games, totaling 11 tackles and one forced fumble. He scored off a blocked kick against New Mexico State.
If there is one area where new defensive coordinator Thom Kaumeyer can rest a little easier it's at defensive back. The Warriors return two starters in juniors Mike Edwards (5-10, 180) and John Hardy-Tuliau (5-11, 165). Both will man the corner positions this year with sophomores Bubba Poueu-Luna (5-11, 175) and Mike Sellars (5-11, 175) holding down the safety spots.
Hardy-Tuliau is shifting from safety to corner. He started all 13 games last year at free safety, finishing third in tackles with 73. He also tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) and led in blocked kicks (four). He is a good all-around athlete.
Edwards is more of a natural corner. He started 12 of 13 games at corner, finishing with 11 pass breakups and one pick. Edwards also had 43 tackles and finished 55th nationally in pass breakups. He's a good one.
The experience level falls off a bit at safety. Manning the free spot is Sellers, who played corner and nickel back last season. He started five games at nickel. He recorded two sacks, three pass breakups and one fumble recovery. Sellers had 30 tackles for the season. Poueu-Luna played only special teams last year.
This hasn't always been a special area for the Warriors. But last year under the guidance of veteran Dick Tomey, Hawaii showed improvement; particularly in the return game where Harding averaged 7.4 yards on punts and a more modest 21.1 yards on kickoffs.
Edwards had a better average on kickoffs, returning 44 at a rate of 24.7 yards. Hawaii didn't return a kickoff for a touchdown, nor did it yield any on kickoffs or punts. The Warriors scored two touchdowns on punt returns, averaging 8.7 yards overall while yielding 7.5. Hawaii averaged 23.9 yards on kickoffs and yielded only 18.
Sophomore Tyler Hadden (5-11, 180) will handle all the kicking duties for UH after sharing the role last year as a freshman. He played in all 13 games, connecting on 5-of-10 field goals, including a long of 47 in a win at Idaho.
He had two touchbacks on kickoffs and made 18-of-21 PATs, but to say he's erratic would be accurate. Hadden made a 53-yarder in the spring game, but he also missed a couple from closer.
There's no question Hadden has a strong leg. Unfortunately for him and the Warriors, he isn't always sure where it's heading.
Senior Alex Dunnachie (6-4, 220) has a big leg but spent most of last year learning to directional kick. When he booms it, he often outkicks his coverage, leaving the Warriors vulnerable to big returns.
This year, Chow is in favor of cutting it loose more and having the men on special teams do a better job of tracking the return man. Hit it high, hit it far and then let the tacklers take over. Last year, Dunnachie averaged 39.7 yards a punt, down from 43 the season prior.
Chow noted this and instructed Dunnachie to find the right blend. At times, the directional kick will be needed. At others, kicking away will be needed. Last year, he had a long of 62 and seven punts of 50 yards or more. He also knocked downed 18 punts inside the 20.
Hawaii got off to a late start with the hiring of Chow but did a good job of keeping several local prospects home who might have gone elsewhere had McMackin remained in charge.
The top newcomers expected to make an impact right away are Ethan Watanabe (6-2, 265) out of Brennan High in San Antonio and center Kapua Sai (6-4, 316), a transfer from the University of Utah who must enroll in graduate school to be eligible this fall. If he is, he will be the best offensive lineman Hawaii suits up.
Watanabe was a quality tight end in Texas, who was named first-team All-District 28-4A as a senior and second team as a junior. He has good size and hands, and will play a key role for the Warriors this fall.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
This first year through the Mountain West will be a difficult one for Hawaii. For years, the Warriors were good in part because the Western Athletic Conference was only so-so. For every Fresno State or Nevada, there was a New Mexico State or Utah State to make things better.
It would be tough enough if the Warriors were a proven team. They are not. In fact, Chow and his coaching staff don't really know how Hawaii will respond to the likes of USC and BYU, much less Boise State and San Diego State.
The offense and defense are new. So are the special teams. What's in store? Well, probably a losing record. Getting to the Hawaii Bowl at 6-6 will require a lot of skill and some luck. No matter. Chow is in it for the long haul. And this is only the first phase of the new-look Warriors.
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