April 08, 2009
A too-soon look at Hawaii, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. It feels strange to start with the defense here, but when you lose nine starters on one side of the ball ... yow. That's change you can dry heave in. (Thank you. No, really, thanks.)
Not that Hawaii was impressive on defense by any means, even by WAC standards, but the departures are not just replaceable lumps with helmets and crazy hair: David Veikune, Keala Watson, Joshua Leonard, Solomon Elimimian, Adam Leonard and Ryan Mouton were all key figures in the 2007 Sugar Bowl run, and all finished with at least second team All-WAC honors last year; Adam Leonard was all-conference for the third year in a row, and Elimimian shared the league's defensive player of the year award. That's like a thousand career starts, not to mention 12 of the top 15 tacklers, all gone.
There is one notable returnee, linebacker John Fonoti, but there's a chance half the new starters will be first-year junior college transfers -- including most of the secondary, which added three JUCOs in February, and the interior line, which picked up a couple readymade defensive tackles. That's not the case on the spring depth chart, but with so many spots up for grabs and no hyped recruits or heirs apparent, such early guesses are notoriously unreliable. If you're looking for something more concrete, try this: Despite a boost from incoming cornerback Lyle Brackenridge's hair, a slightly above-average WAC defense will temporarily regress to a below-average WAC defense, making it by definition one of the most porous units in the country.
What's the Same. Last year, you may recall, it was the offense undergoing a radical personnel overhaul from the mass exodus of stars and record-breakers from the '07 WAC championship team: The Warriors lost their head coach, offensive guru and playcaller; their face-of-the-program quarterback; four receivers who'd led the team in catches three years running; and an All-American guard. In their place was an almost wholly new group that struggled to find its trigger man and finished almost three touchdowns per game behind its predecessor on the scoreboard.
The good news with youth is that growing pains bear fruit later on, which is a distinct possibility with Greg "Not the New Radicals Guy" Alexander taking full command at quarterback, where he split time with Inoke Funaki (and, to a much lesser extended, now-departed Tyler Graunke). It took Alexander almost half the season to work his way back into the lineup after the opening loss to Florida, and another three weeks to finally relegate Funaki to the bench (and, eventually, to running back, where Funaki is listed this spring). Alexander put any doubts to rest over the last seven games, though, tossing 14 touchdowns to just three picks (a major improvement over Funaki's 7:12 TD:INT ratio) and going over 250 yards in each of the last five.
The most glaring improvement was on the scoreboard: Hawaii averaged 19 points in the first seven games -- that's including a 36-point effort against mighty Weber State -- and 30 points in the last seven, after Alexander took over. Alexander is a towering, strong-armed guy in the pocket with his two best big-play receivers, Greg Salas (14.6 yards per catch, three TDs) and Malcolm Lane (17.5 per catch, 6 TDs) at his disposal. The preseason All-WAC love will be split between Boise State's Kellen Moore and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, but there's no reason Alexander won't be right in that mix. (Well there's one good reason -- see the sack numbers below -- but we'll come around to that.)
All part of a balanced sack-fest. We should recognize here that these were hardly the run-n-shootin' aerial bandits of popular memory and myth. In fact, Hawaii was pretty balanced last year: While still spreading the field and paying lip service to the pass, it only attempted 35 passes to just shy of 30 runs per game overall; in wins, UH actually ran slightly more often, 32 times per game to 31 passes, an unthinkable statistic under the "throw first, ask questions later" ethic that defined the program during June Jones' regime. With Jones on the sideline and Colt Brennan in the pocket, the Warriors averaged almost 48 passes from 2005-07 and only failed to reach 40 attempts seven times in 39 games, never lobbing fewer than thirty-four. Last year, the new faces didn't crack 40 passes in a game until the year-end losses to Cincinnati and Notre Dame.
That doesn't mean UH is suddenly content to grind it out or anything. The running game still finished 111th nationally and failed to produce anything resembling a go-to back. (Leading rusher Daniel Libre usually didn't start and had just 443 yards; he's not listed on the spring depth chart pending a ruling on an extra year of eligibility.) One mitigating factor in both the promulgation of the run game and its general failure is the sheer number of designed passes that wound up as negative runs: Parlaying its Sugar Bowl flop against Georgia into a season-long trend, Hawaii finished dead last nationally in sacks allowed, yielding four to Florida, three to Oregon State, six to San Jose State, three to Fresno State, seven to Boise State, six (by just two players) to Nevada, four to New Mexico State, seven to Washington State, five to Cincinnati and finally eight to Notre Dame, for a stunning grand total of 57 sacks for the season. Luckily, those hits were split between Funaki early and Alexander late, or it might have been really ugly.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Part of the inconsistency and lack of identity last year was due to early fluctuations in the personnel, which kept the offense in a weekly state of flux for most of the year -- Funaki, especially, was not an ideal run-n-shoot passer. This time around, with Alexander entrenched, coach David McMackin promised UH would get back to letting it fly:
That passive-aggressive offense that went through several transformations last year is going back to the original air-it-out model.
"We're going to run the pure run-and-shoot," McMackin said. "We're going to let it fly and try to have fun."
The high-flying approach means fun for the viewer, too, though almost certainly not anywhere in the stratosphere of the take-no-prisoners assaults by Brennan and Co. Alexander's pace last year in terms of completion percentage, yards per attempt and overall efficiency was more reminiscent of Brennan's predecessor, Timmy Chang, which isn't bad for a few monster passing days against the hapless secondaries in the bottom half of the WAC. It's not bad for a three or four interceptions over the course of 45 throws per game, either. But the net effect of unhinged passing must be ultimately positive, if for no other reason than nostalgia.
Best-Case. September should be very nice with four winnable games -- Central Arkansas, Washington State, UNLV and Louisiana Tech -- right away, and the November lineup consists almost entirely of the conference cupcakes. The crucial stretch will be in the middle, during a four-week span in October that includes Fresno State, Boise State and Nevada. Perennial WAC king Boise will be a substantial favorite, even on the island, but if the Warriors can split the FSU and Nevada tilts and close strong with a win over visiting Navy before Wisconsin calls for an early December holiday, 10 wins is there for the taking.
Worst-Case. Last year's team was wobbly enough at midseason to get hosed by Utah State, incredibly, and a loss on the three-week, Wazzu-UNLV-La Tech road trip could be a very bad omen. Defeats at the hands of Fresno, Boise and Nevada in-conference and Wisconsin in the finale will be largely expected; a slip against the wretched lower half of the conference -- say, at San Jose State in late November -- could be the difference in a respectable eight-win rebound and crossed fingers for another bowl bid at .500.
Non-Binding Forecast. Any offensive gains should be offset by a roughly equal defensive regression, which would theoretically leave UH right back where it started, at .500. With no overall improvement at all, though, there are three more wins to be had: One, in retribution for the shocking and probably un-replicable loss to Utah State, and two in switching out a pair of BCS heavies (Florida and Oregon State) for Navy and UNLV. Bah to your "strength of schedule": This team isn't competing for the BCS, or realistically even for the WAC championship, considering Boise State's stranglehold. But if it takes care of business against the lower class of its own conference, as it should, a return to 9-4 and another O'ahu Bowl "vacation" should look just fine.