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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 90: Hawaii

Last year’s stint at Utah was a homecoming for Norm Chow, who started two seasons at offensive guard for the Utes in the 1960s, earning honorable mention all-American accolades as a senior. By its popular definition, the word homecoming means just that: Like any graduate, Chow stepped back on campus for a brief walk through his old stomping grounds – 43 years after his graduation, mind you. Taking the job at Hawaii wasn’t a homecoming; Chow’s just coming home. He was born in Honolulu, raised in nearby Palolo and attended Waialua High School and Punahou School. In his introductory press conference, Chow called his new team the  “Rainbow Warriors” – a nickname now used only by those distinctly familiar with the program’s history. Later, Chow would ask, “How many people are fortunate enough to go full circle? I’m blessed. I’m honored. I know that.” Homecoming is one thing; coming home is another. Chow’s home. Now, onto football.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Honolulu

Nickname
Warriors

Returning starters
11 (6 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 51

2011 record
(6-7, 3-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 91

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at U.S.C.
  • Sept. 15
    Lamar
  • Sept. 22
    Nevada
  • Sept. 28
    at B.Y.U.
  • Oct. 6
    at San Diego St.
  • Oct. 13
    New Mexico
  • Oct. 27
    at Colorado St.
  • Nov. 3
    at Fresno St.
  • Nov. 10
    Boise St.
  • Nov. 16
    at Air Force
  • Nov. 24
    U.N.L.V.
  • Dec. 1
    South Alabama

Last year’s prediction

You know why Hawaii is the WAC favorite despite getting Nevada on the road? Because as we enter 2011, the offense has bigger questions to address than the defense. And the offense, as we all know, is going to be strong regardless of the question marks up front and the unsettled depth chart at receiver. That, above all else, is why U.H. must be considered the favorite to take home the WAC in the program’s final season in the conference before heading to the Mountain West in 2012. But those B.C.S. conference games, and a game with B.Y.U., will knock Hawaii’s won-loss mark down a peg. Still, landing a WAC title — even a Boise State-free WAC — would be a nice way for the Warriors to leave the building.

2011 recap

In a nutshell I was wrong on two counts – very wrong, to be precise. One: That Hawaii was the best team in the WAC. The Warriors were nothing of the sort, losing four games in conference play, two at home in November. Two: That the question marks on offense were no cause for concern. Hawaii averaged eight fewer points per game than in 2010; while averaging 31.5 points per game is nothing to sneeze at, the Warriors needed to do far more to offset another disappointing effort on defense. This doesn’t tell the whole story, however. U.H. lost five offensive starters to season-ending injuries, including quarterback Bryant Moniz. Another five starters missed at least one game, forcing U.H. to use 10 starting lineups on offense. Regardless: excuses only go so far. The Warriors lost to U.N.L.V., came out flat against San Jose State and blew four chances to cement bowl eligibility in November and December. Head coach Greg McMackin retired after the end of the regular season, ushering in the Chow era.

High point The Warriors opened the year with a 34-17 win over Colorado before hanging very tight with Washington in a 40-32 loss – the Warriors were within six points late in the fourth quarter. The year’s best win came against Louisiana Tech, the eventual WAC champs: U.H. took a 20-6 into halftime and blew the Bulldogs’ doors off in the third quarter.

Low point It doesn’t get worse than a 40-20 loss to U.N.L.V. – this actually happened, I swear. Hawaii would also lose three WAC games by four points or less: by 28-27 to San Jose State, by 35-31 to Utah State and by 24-21 to Fresno State.

Tidbit Hawaii’s victory over Colorado was the program’s first regular season win against a Pac-12 opponent outside of Washington – the Huskies and Cougars – since beating Oregon and California over back-to-back weeks in 1994. Since then, the Warriors have lost to Colorado (2010), U.S.C. (1999, 2003, 2005 and 2010) and Oregon State (2006 and 2008). U.H. topped Washington in 2007 and Washington State in 2008 and 2009; in addition, U.H. beat Oregon State in the 1999 Oahu Classic and Arizona State in the 2006 Hawaii Bowl.

Tidbit (WAC edition) Hawaii has failed to defend its WAC title in the year following each of its four shared or outright  conference championships. The Warriors finished eighth in the WAC in 1993 after sharing the conference title in 1992. The Warriors went from tied atop the league in 1999 into a tie for sixth in 2000. After that magical 2007 season, June Jones’ last with the program, Hawaii fell into a tie for second in the WAC. And after tying Boise State and Nevada for the conference lead in 2010, Hawaii finished tied for fourth in the WAC last fall.

Tidbit (first quarter edition) Hawaii is 2-17 since the start of the 2008 season when trailing after the first quarter. The Warriors went 1-5 in such games last fall. The losses came against Washington, which held a 21-0 lead after 15 minutes; U.N.L.V., which held a 10-0 lead; Utah State; Nevada; and Fresno State. The lone win came over Idaho, which took a 7-0 lead entering the second quarter but eventually lost, 16-14.

Former players in the N.F.L.

17 WR Davone Bess (Miami), WR Rodney Bradley (Baltimore), LB Aaron Brown (St. Louis), LB Solomon Elimimian (Minnesota), C John Estes (Jacksonville), RB Alex Green (Green Bay), OT Wayne Hunter (New York Jets), LS Jake Ingram (Tennessee), OG Vince Manuwai (Atlanta), CB Ryan Mouton (Tennessee), LB Corey Paredes (Minnesota), WR Kealoha Pilares (Carolina), WR Royce Pollard (New York Jets), WR Greg Salas (St. Louis), C Samson Satele (Indianapolis), S Mana Silva (Dallas), DT Isaac Sopoaga (San Francisco).

Arbitrary top five list

Baseball players born in Hawaii
1. SP Charlie Hough.
2. SP Ron Darling.
3. OF Shane Victorino.
4. SP Sid Fernandez.
5. OF Mike Lum.

Coaching

Norm Chow (Utah ’68), entering his first season. This marks the Honolulu-born offensive mastermind’s first turn as a head coach, and if that sounds ridiculous – if it sounds mind-boggling, hard to believe – then you’re not alone. All Chow has done over his 39-year coaching career is alter the landscape of college football: first at B.Y.U., then at N.C. State and then at U.S.C., where his deft touch first became apparent on a national level. Chow’s career began at B.Y.U., where he was LaVell Edwards’ receivers coach from 1976-81 and his offensive coordinator from 1982-1999, Edwards’ second-to-last season with the program. Beginning in 1982, Chow also coached B.Y.U.’s quarterbacks. You know one of his pupils, Ty Detmer, who won the Heisman in 1990. Another pair, Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon, were taken in the first round of the N.F.L. Draft. A fourth, Steve Young, could also play a little football. Chow left Provo after the 1999 season, spending 2000 as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at N.C. State. A year later, Chow took center stage as the offensive coordinator at U.S.C.; with Chow at the controls of the offense, the Trojans turned in one of the most dominating runs in college football history. Consider his list of quarterbacks: Wilson, McMahon, Young, Detmer, Phillip Rivers, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Only Detmer failed to go in the first round of the N.F.L. Draft; Detmer, Palmer and Leinart won the Heisman. Chow’s career hasn’t gone as well since 2005, when he began a three-year run as the coordinator for the Tennessee Titans. That was followed by three years at U.C.L.A. (2008-10), a stretch defined by the fact that Rick Neuheisel had Chow on his staff yet chose to go from a pro-style system to the Pistol. After one year at Utah, Chow’s back home.

Tidbit (coaching edition) The lone holdover from Greg McMackin’s staff is linebackers coach Tony Tuioti, who is entering his fifth season in that position with the Warriors. Unlike in past years, Tuioti stands as the only assistant with any past ties to the program; two new faces were born in Hawaii, but neither attended the university. But nearly every new coach has a connection of sorts with Chow. Offensive coordinator Tommy Lee was the coordinator at Utah while Chow was in Provo. Special teams coordinator Chris Demerest coached the defensive backs at North Carolina while Chow was at N.C. State. Secondary coach Daronte’ Jones coached the cornerbacks at U.C.L.A. while Chow was coordinator.

Defensive line coach Lewis Powell was an administrative assistant at Utah last fall. Likewise with tight ends coach Philip Rauscher, who was also a graduate assistant at U.C.L.A. from 2008-9. Running backs coach Keith Uperesa was an assistant offensive line coach at U.S.C. from 2000-1, not to mention a Punahou School graduate. And offensive line coach Chris Wiesehan was the tight ends coach at U.C.L.A. in 2009. That leaves only defensive coordinator Thom Kaumeyer, the former defensive backs coach at Tulane, Kentucky and with the Jacksonville Jaguars who was San Diego State’s defensive coordinator from 2002-6.

Players to watch

You know Chow’s offense. It’s a pro-style system. There will be fireworks through the air, led by consistently steady play at quarterback – though Hawaii still has a decision to make at the position, which I’ll touch on below. Despite the high-profile passing game, the heart and soul of the offense will be a grinding, physical and dedicated running game: as at U.S.C., the Warriors will churn out tough yards between the tackles. This will mark a change from the program’s recent past, when Hawaii never felt the need to pound away at the ground. Hawaii’s passing game will continue to roll; however, it will take a greater cue from the running game, which will assume a larger role in Hawaii’s plans.

One thing the Warriors don’t lack is receivers – no change there – despite losing leading receiver Royce Pollard, a second-team all-WAC pick as a senior. U.H. brings back junior Billy Ray Stutzmann (78 receptions for 910 yards), who will likely crack the 1,000-yard mark in this offense. He’ll be one clear starter, though U.H. still needs to settle the remainder of this rotation. This unsure depth chart has nothing to do with a lack of options; there are enough options, in fact, that Hawaii can go one of several ways along its two-deep.

A few names to keep in mind. Sophomore Trevor Davis (28 for 366) is a major talent. Another sophomore, Scott Harding, who once played Australian Rules Football, will take on a larger role in the passing game after earning some freshman all-American honors in the return game last fall. Juniors Chris Gant, Justin Clapp (38 for 356) and Allen Sampson (18 for 188) – the latter a jitterbug – provide ample depth, if one or two aren’t eventual starters. Senior Jeremiah Ostrowski (65 for 687) is consistently productive. Redshirt freshman Justin Vele, a converted linebacker, has impressed the staff with how quickly he’s taken to his new role. U.H. will also use a position called tight end, which is wholly unfamiliar to this fan base. This tight end will occasionally block in addition to his receiving duties. Again: tight end.

There’s size up front, and some talent, but no depth. There’s also dangerously little experience, especially with senior right tackle Levi Legay’s football-playing future in doubt due to injuries. When U.H. left the spring, the starting five consisted of three freshmen and three sophomores. The freshmen were left tackle Blake Muir, left guard Ben Dew and center Ben Clarke; the sophomores were right guard David Lefotu and right tackle Jordan Loeffler. This is concerning.

Lefotu made six starts at guard last fall, making him the most battle-tested linemen on the two-deep, but he’s still only a sophomore. The line could use a healthy Sean Shigematsu, a redshirt freshman who started the first two games of 2011 before suffering a season-ending injury. How is this line going to play out? I was a bit off when I said the line lacked depth earlier: Hawaii has numbers, just no proven options. For now, the line looks like the weakest link on the team.

Sophomore Joey Iosefa (548 yards, 7 touchdowns) is the sort of bullying, bowling ball of a back Chow wants in the running game. He’ll be a dangerous weapon on first down and in the red zone, and despite his size – he’s listed at 240 pounds – has nice feet and solid hands as a receiver (20 catches for 122 yards). But this offense needs some dash to go with Iosefa’s smash, even if the sophomore can handle 15-18 carries per game. The Warriors hope that redshirt freshman Will Gregory can help provide a spark of big-play ability to the backfield; he’s currently running second behind Iosefa, and could be in line for a significant role. U.H. has another smaller back in redshirt freshman Josh Gonda, not to mention two bigger backs in senior Sterling Jackson (246 yards) and sophomore John Lister.

The defense loses three starting linemen, two starting linebackers, a starting cornerback and its starting strong safety. That’s not good for business. But it’s not all bad: Hawaii still brings back a terrific edge rusher, a strong and steady defensive end, two capable defensive backs with a nose for the football and enough young talent along the back seven to keep things interesting. In summation: Kaumeyer wasn’t handed a full deck, but he has enough at his disposal for Hawaii to actually improve its performance on defense.

Despite the loss of three starters, I like the makeup of Hawaii’s defensive line. The line could even improve, in fact, if two events come to pass: one, if sophomore nose tackle Moses Samia can play as well in the starting lineup as he did in flashes as a rookie; and if senior Haku Correa can recapture his prior form after missing all but the first three games of last season due to injury. Correa, who made 45 tackles in 2010, would team with fellow sophomore Geordon Hanohano (18 tackles) to give U.H. a nice pairing at defensive tackle. The Warriors also return senior end Paipai Falemalu (50 tackles, 4.5 sacks), an all-conference candidate; for now, Falemalu is joined in the starting lineup by sophomore Beau Yap.

Corey Paredes and Aaron Brown made plays. They did more than that, but on the bottom line: they made plays on a defense that struggled at times getting stops on third down and in the red zone. Unlike along the defensive line, I can’t see how U.H. will land the same play at linebacker while breaking in a largely new cast. But as up front, Hawaii can build around the one returning starter: junior strong side linebacker Art Laurel (61 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 9.0 sacks), a breakout star in his first season in the starting lineup — and Laurel barely played as a redshirt freshman in 2010. What the Warriors could use is another disruptive linebacker on the weak side, which could help take some pressure off of Laurel.

As of today, junior George Daily-Lyles — who played pretty well as a freshman — is starting on the weak side and sophomore T.J. Taimatuia in the middle. Both are big, tough, strong run-stoppers built to play in the middle. I like the fact that Hawaii moved safety Kamalani Alo down to the weak side; that’s the sort of player Kaumeyer wants coming off the edge, thanks to Alo’s speed. The best starting trio might have Daily-Lyles or Taimatuia in the middle, flanked by Laurel and Alo. But U.H. could use Daily-Lyles on the weak side to help out the run defense while substituting Alo — or another quicker outside linebacker — into the mix on clear passing downs. That’s a nice option.

Kaumeyer and Chow made a smart move in moving free safety John Hardy-Tuliau (73 tackles, 3 interceptions) out to cornerback, where he’ll replace Tank Hopkins. Hardy-Tuliau, a 13-game starter at free safety last fall, will join junior Mike Edwards at cornerback to give U.H. a solid starting pair — assuming that Hardy-Tuliau makes a smooth transition, which is probably a safe assumption. He made nine starts out at nickel back as a true freshman, so for Hardy-Tuliau, it’s just a matter of getting back on the horse. I like the way he plays, and love his flexibility; he’s one of the stars of this defense, and an all-M.W.C. candidate if he hits the ground running.

But Hardy-Tuliau’s move does make safety a bit of a question mark, especially with Richard Torres gone at strong safety. U.H. doesn’t have tremendous experience waiting in reserve, though sophomore Mike Sellers (30 tackles) did make three starts in 2011 when Hawaii opened with an extra defensive backs. Sellers will start at free safety, with senior Leroy Lutu in reserve, while sophomore Bubba Poueu-Luna currently leads the way at strong safety. Poueu-Luna’s backup heading into the summer, junior Charles Clay, has played primarily at wide receiver and on special teams thus far in his career.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Junior quarterback David Graves entered Hawaii’s first spring under Chow with two career starts under his belt, thanks – though that seems like a strange word to use here – to the season-ending injury suffered by Bryant Moniz against Nevada and the poor play of Moniz’s initial successor, Shane Austin. Graves replaced Austin in the eventual loss to Fresno State, completing 13 of 27 attempts 199 yards and 2 scores, and started the Warriors’ final two games of the season. He threw for 260 yards in the win over Tulane; Graves fared worse against B.Y.U., but he did avoid any turnovers.

Sophomore Jeremy Higgins entered the spring listed fourth on Hawaii’s way-too-early depth chart – one based only on the past, and not including Chow’s own breakdown. Fifteen practices later, Higgins left the spring tied with Graves in the race to become Chow’s first starting quarterback. How did Higgins do it? By putting together a very strong spring, and by taking advantage of the blank slate handed to every returning player by the new staff. For now, U.H. has Higgins and Graves tied for the top spot with freshman Ikaika Woolsey running third; if he can remove himself from Chow’s doghouse, junior Cayman Shutter would be listed fourth.

Chow wants to name a starter as soon as possible, but he’ll need to see each of Hawaii’s quarterbacks for at least another week of practice in August before making his final decision. The safest bet would be to go with Graves, thanks to his starting experience – even if that came in a different system. But Chow and his staff obviously like what they see in Higgins; in addition, it’s still too early to write off either Woolsey or Shutter, even if the latter would need to have a monster fall camp to move back into the mix. Here’s a big question: If Graves grabs the nod, will he last through September? Or will Hawaii’s tough non-conference slate lead Graves to struggle, which in turn leads Chow to make a move?

Game(s) to watch

Hawaii is going to sandwich a home game against Lamar with at least three losses, and likely four if San Diego State can get past the Warriors at home. Hawaii hopes to weather that storm and take care of business from Oct. 12 on, when the schedule includes New Mexico, U.N.L.V. and South Alabama at home and Colorado State and Fresno State on the road. Make no mistake: Hawaii will be playing its best football over the second half of the season. But I can’t see how the Warriors don’t struggle coming out of the gate.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Nothing is broken at Hawaii, meaning that Chow and his staff shouldn’t have too hard a time leading the Warriors into Mountain West contention. I just don’t think that this team can taste immediate success in its new league, especially when considering three factors: one, this tough schedule, which includes a slew of deadly road games while getting Nevada and Boise State at home; two, the system change on offense, which is exacerbated by the tough early slate, perhaps slowing development; and three, the handful of personnel issues plaguing this team as it heads into the summer. I worry about quarterback play, even if Graves did start twice down the stretch in 2011. The offensive line is wildly inexperienced at tackle and only slightly less questionable inside. The backfield desperately needs a big-play threat. As of today, I’m worried less about the defense, though holes do exist: Hawaii must get a big year from Samia at nose tackle, must get more disruptive play at linebacker and must land stability at safety. Based on these concerns, and the schedule and system change, I believe Hawaii’s in for a bit of a rebuilding year — four wins is the baseline, but I can’t see the Warriors squeezing into bowl play during Chow’s debut campaign. What about the future? Rarely does a marriage of head coach and program work so well as in this case; Chow finally got his shot, one well overdue, and he clearly has a deep and strong affection not just for this program but for the entire state, which is a prerequisite for the top job at Hawaii. He’ll win games at U.H., just not from the start.

Dream season Hawaii lands an injection of confidence after beating Nevada at home on Sept. 22, which helps propel this team to a 4-2 start. While the Warriors lose at home to Boise State, that’s the only blemish in the second half: U.H. finishes 9-3, 7-1 in the Mountain West.

Nightmare season The schedule provides too stern a test for a program in transition. Hawaii beats Lamar on Sept. 15 before losing another eight games in a row; the Warriors bounce back to beat U.N.L.V. and South Alabama to end the regular season, but the end result is a 3-9 debut for Chow and his staff.

In case you were wondering

Where do Hawaii fans congregate? The chatter at Warrior Sports Network is terrific. You can find additional U.H. football talk at SportsHawaii.com. For an in-depth look at the program, take a look at Stephen Tsai’s blog for The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Tsai might have the most dedicated readership of any local beat reporter in the country.

Hawaii’s all-name nominee S Bubba Poueu-Luna.

Word Count

Through 35 teams 121,588.

Up Next

Who is No. 89? One of the coldest winters in the history of the city housing tomorrow’s university came in 1990, where temperatures reached as low as 24 degrees below fahrenheit. The bitter cold likely helped this team close strong, winning back-to-back games at home to end the regular season before earning a one-point win during bowl play — though that bowl was played in warm, sunny Florida.

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Comments

  1. Evan says:

    Colorado is next

  2. Bobak says:

    From 2010-12, Chow will have faced USC and former disciple Lane Liffin three times with three different teams as OC or HC. That has to be some kind of record.

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