Hawai’i sets sights on becoming a contender this year

Paul Brecht - The Sporting Tribune
Hawai'i went 3-10 last season as the program tried to settle on a new identity and the staff evaluated the in-house talent.

HONOLULU — Heading into year two at the helm, University of Hawai’i head football coach Timmy Chang and staff have put their desired culture in place, started down the recruiting trail and now have set eyes to being a true competitor in the Mountain West.

The ‘Bows, who went 3-10 last season, saw themselves on the wrong side of multiple one-score losses in 2022 as the program tried to settle on a new identity and the staff evaluated the in-house talent. 

They went to quarterback Brayden Schager full-time during the middle of the season and started to introduce bits and pieces of the “Run-N-Shoot” offense after a 1-4 stumble to begin the year, going to the same scheme that Chang dominated in during his time suiting up at QB for the Rainbow Warriors. “It’s Hawai’i’s offense,” Chang said of the scheme back in February. Results immediately followed, increasing points scored each game by four and putting up three 30+ point performances. Following their final game, Hawai’i made the full switch to the Run-N-Shoot with Schager written in as QB1 heading into the offseason and beyond.  Spring practices were held earlier than ever due to the construction of the Clarence T.C. Ching Complex, a project that added seats to the on-campus game day site that UH’s football team will call home until the completion of the new Aloha Stadium.

Chang has worked closer with the quarterback group since the spring as well, trying to help with their understanding of the progressions of each play among other things. While the ‘Bows will take the easy completions, there is still a desire to complete multiple deep shots to open up defenses. Before spring camp, Schager returned home to Texas and worked with longtime QB coach Dan Morrison. The “quarterback whisperer” may be familiar to ‘Bows fans, as he worked with Chang and other QBs that have started for UH in this exact offense. Morrison has been around early in the opening week of camp still, though he isn’t expected to be around long-term.

After an offseason of recruiting players for the scheme and adding athletes to both sides of the ball, here’s what we saw during the opening week of training camp for the University of Hawai’i football team.

1. Run and … Ah, Shoot 

While it’s still (very) early, the first few practices were won by the defense. There wasn’t much doubt about that, forcing multiple turnovers on multiple days of practice that included Saturday’s “scrimmage” of units against each other.  That’s not to say that the offense is doomed by any means. Quite the opposite, actually. 

It’s quite common for defenses to be ahead of offenses early in camp, especially as a new scheme gets put in place on one side. The Run-N-Shoot, specifically, is a scheme predicated on chemistry and timing between quarterback and skill positions. Without reps, it’s impossible to develop those things.“I really think we’re in a good place right now, we just got to have the mentality of getting better every day and get ready to win,” Chang said while reflecting on the first four practices. 

2. The Defense Was Fueled Up, Ready to Go and Flying Around 

In the same vein as the last observation, the defense should be an exciting unit for the ‘Bows this season. 

Senior linebacker and vocal leader Logan Taylor returns and, once again, is hard to miss on the field. When he isn’t barking out instructions for his teammates, he’s flying around in coverage and even recorded a would-be sack in Saturday’s scrimmage session. He led the ‘Bows with 85 tackles last season.New number, same “dawg” in Peter Manuma, who had a pair of INTs last season as a true freshman and finished third on the squad with 70 tackles. He looks like he packed some muscle on in the offseason and could be seen in the mix on most tackles Saturday. 

One of the new additions to the defense that has excited everyone on the team, from staff to players, is Wyoming transfer DB Cam Stone. The senior was an honorable mention All-Mountain West selection last season before coming to the islands.Stone was selected by coaches as a preseason All-Mountain West team honoree, though he said the selection meant little to him without proving it again at his new home. The corner admitted that “it’s a cool accomplishment” but that his “goals are way higher than [preseason all-conference].”

The defensive line was getting solid penetration on passing downs, but Schager and quarterbacks showed mobility and made some solid throws in traffic, though the defensive backs had their fair share of PBUs throughout Saturday. 

3. The Running Game Could Be Fun Despite Increased Passing 

If you’ve paid attention to the ‘Bows in the last year-plus, you’ve heard the name Tylan Hines. 

You’ve probably gotten excited about him, too. The coaching staff sure has been. In his true freshman season, he was second on the team with 634 yards on just 83 carries (good for 7.6 yards per carry, second in the nation for freshman) while getting recognition in the form of an All-Mountain West honorable mention for his contributions. 

Sharing time in the backfield with Hines will likely be senior bruiser Nasjzaé Bryant-Lelei, who had himself a nice day Saturday. The senior out of Orlando, Florida showed good burst against the second-team unit and broke off multiple 10+ yard gains during his reps. The combo of running backs complement each other well, with Hines speed being an explosive weapon for the ‘Bows, whereas Bryant-Lelei can be used in goal-line and third-down situations comfortably. The offensive line, which is still looking for a stable group of five after some departures from last season’s wall that gave up just 10 sacks in conference play, did an impressive job opening lanes for both backs and continued to improve as the week went on against the pass rush. 

4. New Additions Bring Much-Needed Juice on Both Sides of Ball 

While Stone is the biggest name addition to the ‘Bows defense, the staff worked hard with the transfer portal to bring in experienced players to contribute immediately to winning. They also looked to build towards the future, signing 24 players from the class of 2023 to come play for the ‘Bows

“I think we got more playmakers, on both sides of the ball” Chang said following Saturday’s practice. “We got more depth, now it’s just fine-tuning.” One of the new playmakers to look for is Kansas transfer Steven McBride. The wide receiver was an early favorite of Schager during spring practices and has been noticeable throughout the first week of camp, running with the first team. He was a three-star recruit and played snaps as a true freshman for the Jayhawks. 

Houston transfer OL Josh Atkins, another former three-star recruit, got some run Saturday with the first-team offensive line. The sophomore is 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds and moved his feet well, giving another big, athletic piece to the big boys up front. Keep an eye on him going forward.

Heading into the new week… 

Chang said that he and the coaching staff would take the weekend to break down the film from Saturday to key in on what each phase of the ball can improve on going forward. While vibes are high with a team injected with fresh playmakers, last year’s record is in the minds of everyone involved with the program. 

With that, an understanding that there are many improvements that need to be made everywhere has been echoed throughout camp. The focus must be on using every moment they get together to improve as a unit.

“There’s a lot of learning,” Chang said of his program’s progress. “It’s going to be a lot of teaching going on and we just got to keep getting better.” 

With miscommunications and quarterbacks and receivers not being on the same page yet, it’s easy to pick on the offense as not producing. As the days went on, it was clear that reps would remedy this issue. 

With an intriguing receiver room littered with different archetypes, the sooner chemistry can be had, the better. A desire to complete the deep ball will be there for Hawai’i this season, but continuing drives with underneath throws will be important and needs timing to line up. 

Speaking of, some quick hitters to end things out… 

  • QB2 competition between Joey Yellen and Jake Farrell, both got a few series with the 2s on Saturday, and each came away with a mixed bag of results. 
  • WR Jonah Panoke had some nice catches, bigger 6-foot-1 frame and 200 pounds made him look like he could be a YAC-machine this season. 
  • Defensive line has rotation of rushers that are ACTIVE, both on the interior and on the edge. If they are productive this season, increased pass-rush would help DBs who can make plays on the ball. 
  • Speaking of defensive backs who can create turnovers, Peter Manuma and Cam Stone should feast with this defense. Both chipped in a pair of interceptions last year, but don’t be surprised to see that number rise for both. 

Heading into week two of camp, things can improve. Now in year two of the Chang staff era, things are already looking up. Despite that, the aftertaste of only three wins last season remains. 

Each man holds the pen to his own life, and everyone with the ‘Bows has a desire to write a new story for Hawai’i football this season.