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Friday, December 28, 2007
Updated: December 29, 5:24 PM ET
Hawaii's receiving corps provides under-the-radar support

By Chad Nielsen
ESPN The Magazine

Colt Brennan thinks we're missing the point. It's not Hawaii's offensive system that makes this quarterback's job look easy, but the four starting receivers who put the "run" in run 'n' shoot.

"I have three guys who have All-American stats, though not all of them will get All-American credit," he says. "Hands down, they're the best receiving corps in the nation."

Davone Bess
Davone Bess has made the most of his second chance.
Teammates call Davone Bess, Ryan Grice-Mullen, Jason Rivers and C.J. Hawthorne "the Dread-Heads," because all four wear dreadlocks. But under the hair, each brings the individual talent and style that make the system work. Each came to Hawaii from vastly different circumstances. All but Rivers, a Honolulu native, were overlooked by other Division I schools. Now they're laughing all the way to the end zone -- literally. As a unit, they had 340 catches this year for 4,403 yards and 43 TDs, and never stopped teasing defenders.

Brennan calls it "good-natured trash-talking," and it helps the four to function as a cohesive unit. In the run 'n' shoot, WRs have to make the same reads as the QB -- and execute, even if the read takes them out of the play. "I've never heard one of these guys say give me the ball," Brennan says. "One guy will sell out his route, because if he gets covered up another guy's getting a touchdown."

This is the case Brennan made in the locker room after his last regular-season game. Finally, somebody listened. WAC commissioner Karl Benson invented a new award that allowed Brennan to share the spotlight with the receivers who made his cartoonish numbers possible, naming the five the WAC Offensive Unit of the Year. Here's an introduction to the Dread-Heads, as Brennan sees them, from left to right in the formation.

Left flanker: Jason Rivers (82 rec., 1069 yards, 13 TDs)
"He's my tough, physical possession receiver," Brennan says. Rivers stands 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, but plays bigger. "He's my goal-line receiver. I love when they man up on him. He's the guy who puts his head down and picks up that extra yard."

"It's more my mentality," says Rivers, whose Samoan mother and African-American father raised him on Oahu. "I might be big, but it's more that I just hate the defense. I just don't like defensive players at all. Even my own defensive players will tell you that."

With looks from several Pac-10 schools, Rivers took a visit to Washington State before settling on UH, attracted by June Jones' offense. "This system gives you freedom to play," he says. "We don't have set routes. We read the defense, and the plays have so many options for us. It's no fun when you have to run a post straight to the safety and get blown up. We run away from that kind of stuff."

Left slot: Davone Bess (101 rec., 1213 yards, 12 TDs)
"Davone is just the rock, the playmaker," Brennan says of the 5-11, 195-pound junior who has a knack for getting open when plays break down. The pair have connected for an NCAA-record 39 TDs. "He makes unreal catches, and he makes guys miss. He's got an attitude. He's not just trying to make you miss. He's trying to make you look bad."

Coming out of Skyline High School in Oakland, Calif., Bess lost a scholarship at Oregon State when he was placed in juvenile detention after driving some friends away from the scene of a crime. Hawaii offered him a second chance. Now football is fun again.

Against Boise State, Bess somersaulted into the end zone from the 4-yard line. A week later, he read the defense, turned to Grice-Mullen, and said, "Dawg, you're about to score." And Grice-Mullen did. "A lot of that comes with experience and repetition."

Right slot: Ryan Grice-Mullen (100 rec., 1335 yards, 12 TDs)
Ryan Grice-Mullen
The shifty Grice-Mullen does his work out of the slot.
"Ryan Grice-Mullen is just that wild, squirrelly receiver," Brennan says of the 5-11, 180-pound junior from Rialto, Calif. "He'll take a quick, flat route and turn it upfield and take it to the house. He has unbelievable speed. His jukes are awesome. He catches balls in ways nobody's ever really thought of catching them."

Flamboyant off the field, Grice-Mullen plays the hype man when he joins Bess and some defensive teammates for steam-releasing freestyle rap sessions. He doesn't look like the guy with an intellectual approach to the game plan. "This offense is based on reads," he says. "You've got to know what the quarterback is thinking, because you've got to be thinking the same thing to make it work. It takes a lot of practice and hard work to run it full speed while the defense is moving."

Nobody recruited Rialto High School, which went 1-19 during Grice-Mullen's junior and senior seasons. But Hawaii made an offer to him after the coaching staff noticed him in the films of three different opponents it was scouting. "When I tell that story now," he says, "people look at me like I'm a ghost."

Right flanker: C.J. Hawthorne (57 rec., 786 yards, 6 TDs)
"C.J. is our spiritual guidance out there," Brennan says of the 5-11, 168-pound senior from Biloxi, Miss. "He's always got a big smile on his face. He's that guy when the team's down that you feel confident with C.J. in the huddle. He is the big-play guy, a great vertical threat. We never really lined up and tried to find out, but he's definitely one of the fastest guys."

Hawthorne was Jones' worst nightmare, a kid who took a recruiting visit to Hawaii with no intention of committing, eating another chunk from the program's $60,000 recruiting budget. "This was like a trip of a lifetime for me," he says. But the team's family atmosphere -- where wives and children are welcome at practice -- changed his mind.

Hawthorne has seven brothers and sisters, and already had a son. "That's huge for a lot of coaches," he says. "They look at that as a strain on their focus." Now, he sees the team as an extended family, like back home. "Ryan [Grice-Mullen] lives right down the street. My wife cooks all the time. I'll go get him, call him up, drop him off food."

Now that's teamwork.

Chad Nielsen is a college football contributor to ESPN The Magazine.