GUEST POST: Patrick Mayhorn's Non-Conference Previews: Hawaii
First-year coach Timmy Chang is focusing on establishing roots, not winning in 2022.
SITE STUFF: As I mentioned last week, I’m taking time off this month, but there’s still plenty of content in the pipeline thanks to a heavy-hitting lineup of guest posters.
We begin with a look at Michigan’s week two opponent from Patrick Mayhorn, whose outstanding work you can find at The Outside Zone and Flipping the Field. He’ll use his Group of Five expertise to preview all three of M’s non-conference opponents for us this month.
Timmy Chang isn’t likely to do a lot of winning in his first season at the helm of his alma mater. Given his status as a program legend for his work in quarterbacking June Jones’ offense in the early 2000s – setting just about every school (and quite a few national) passing records in the process – that may be a bit of a tough adjustment for the 40-year-old native son tasked now with rebuilding a Hawaii program damaged severely by two years of Todd Graham.
To make matters worse for Chang, he’s returned home by way of Nevada, formerly directed by now-Colorado State head coach Jay Norvell in what was one of the most successful tenures in program history.
The Wolfpack were a defense short of serious Mountain West contention in each of the last two seasons, and Chang’s responsibilities in coaching wide receivers in 2021 (and tight ends from 2018-20) didn’t exactly force him through the ringer. He worked with Romeo Doubs, Tory Horton, Justin Lockhart, Melquan Stovall and Cole Turner, under the direction of quarterback Carson Strong. Doubs, Turner and Strong all have NFL contracts on their desks; Horton, Lockhart and Stovall will within a few years.
There’s no indication that Chang can’t handle a little bit of losing, but the next time he comes out of a season as a coach feeling badly about his team’s final record may be the first.
He’s just about the only person in Honolulu who may end the 2022 season feeling worse than he did after 2021.
As the Rainbow Warriors move away from Graham’s tumultuous tenure – which ended with allegations of player mistreatment – and into the Chang era, they return to a familiar style of play and to a coach who much better understands the intricacies and quirks of coaching on the island. Chang was born and raised in Hawaii. He’s embraced the player-led ‘Braddahhood’ movement and preaches the importance of playing to Hawaii’s unique circumstances, opening up practice to fans, students and locals in the process.
“I think it’s important that the fans come out and just be part of us,” Chang told Ka Leo in March. “Football is exciting. It’s an exciting sport. It’s given me everything.
“I really want the kids and the keiki of the land to just come out there with their families, and their friends and just kind of watch the team and see how they’re doing, because they’re the ones that are going to represent the state when we go to places like Michigan, San Diego, and go and compete for what we want to do this year. It’s just important for these guys to get around and see our guys and support our guys.”
It’s a stark contrast to the gruff and embittered Graham, whose next amicable split with a school will be his first. So too is Chang’s approach to the game. Like his mentor, Jones, and like just about every successful coach in program history short of Dick Tomey, Chang wants to score a whole lot of points, and understands that to do so with Hawaii requires a bit of creativity.
Tomey’s successor, Rob Wagner (who had worked as Tomey’s DC) tabbed a young Paul Johnson to run his option offense in Honolulu and built out one of the nation’s most effective offenses during Wagner’s nine-year, 58-49-3 career at the helm. Replacement Fred von Appen tried to install a pro style set, went 5-31, and was fired after three seasons.
It was Jones, hired in 1999, who set the standard for what a Hawaii offense should look like. Deploying his run-and-shoot system, Jones built some of college football’s most effective passing attacks and rattled off a 76-41 record that plants him firmly among the program’s best coaches. Replacement Greg McMackin, Jones’ DC, kept the run-and-shoot rolling with OC Ron Lee and eventually, former Jones QB Nick Rolovich, and seemed to be trending upwards before his resignation and retirement after 2011.
Norm Chow was hired to replace him, only to abandon the run-and-shoot and drop out of the position four years later. Rolovich took over the helm and doesn’t likely require a complete history – he ran the same offense all of these guys did.
Whether Chang plans to run a true iteration of Jones’ system isn’t entirely clear – he said that he wants offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker, a long-time purveyor of pass-heavy offenses, to set the system declined to reduce it to a name – but the intent is obvious. Hawaii is going to pass the ball quite a bit.
This season, though, the focus internally lies much more in reestablishing confidence among a roster severely depleted by in- and post-season transfers (although several players returned when Graham was fired) and damaged by Graham’s approach to coaching. Chang has quite a bit of work still to do in filling out the 85-man team, but he’s making a priority of healing the locker room and of bringing in plenty of local players to do it.
“When you have kids wanting to stay home and defend the state and represent the eight islands, that’s special and then it just comes down to those guys in that locker room and them believing in each other and them trying to be the best version of what they are,” Chang told Ka Leo.
“I tell them, ‘Man, you’re talented. Your God-given ability is the reason why you’re sitting in this room,’ and now it’s (about) getting all the aspects of life right and our coaches putting these guys in the position to succeed. I think it’s exciting and I’m looking forward to the journey and the process.”
The long-term outlook, positive as it may be, does not reflect on Hawaii’s 2022 roster. The Rainbow Warriors have 14 major pieces from either the portal or JUCO ranks but are still only scraping the surface in recovering from the loss of nearly 30 contributors to either transfer, graduation or the professional ranks.
Funny enough, if there’s a strength here it’s likely the rushing attack. It wasn’t especially strong last season, but part-time starter Dedrick Parson returns and is one of 10 players with any sort of starting experience that Hawaii can claim entering the season. He’s only 5-8, but he wears his 205 pounds tremendously well and has proven extremely difficult to bring down, be it as a running back or as a special teams return man. He led all rushers with 117 carries last season, picking up 618 yards and finding the end zone eight times while snaring another 28 receptions for 279 yards and a score.
The departure of Dae Dae Hunter, the more powerful (somehow) of Hawaii’s two backs last season and the owner of 651 yards, to Liberty is a loss for the backfield, but not one without replacements. Scatback Tylan Hines arrives from Air Force while de facto wide receivers James Phillips and Dior Scott fill out the room.
Plus, with the return of four offensive linemen who can claim starting experience and tight end Caleb Phillips, a blocking specialist, the rushing attack might be able to border on capable.
That’s going to matter even more because of the departure of quarterback Chevan Cordeiro and the losses of Nick Mardner, Jared Smart and Calvin Turner Jr., his top three receivers. Cordeiro wasn’t a star or anything, but his top internal replacement, Brayden Schager, went 65-of-108 passing for 615 yards with two scores to five interceptions last season, and the answers Chang has landed from without are Washington State’s Cammon Cooper and Pitt’s Joey Yellen. The former has familiarity with the offense, but neither has a particularly impressive resume to this point.
At wide receiver, 2021 deep threat Zion Bowens looks like a future star, and possession guy Jonah Panoke has taken up a leadership position in the locker room, but the two combined for 23 receptions a season ago and there’s no obvious third option on the roster to plug into the slot, let alone a fourth for something approximating the run-and-shoot.
In other words, Chang may not want to run the ball a whole lot this season, but it may be his only choice if he wants to score points.
The defense bears mentioning in the same way an impending car accident merits road flares. They were 98th in Bill Connelly’s defensive SP+ at the end of 2021, and an astonishing 17 major contributors are gone. It’s easier to rattle off the contributors who aren’t departing than those who are.
Among the carnage, Hawaii has all four contributing defensive ends, two starting tackles and a third from the bench, one starting linebacker, two starting cornerbacks and two counterparts off the bench, and all five members of a five-man safety rotation to replace.
Nose tackle Blessman Ta’ala is a handful and really came into his own down the stretch last season; linebackers Penei Pavihi and Isaiah Tufaga showed promise – although the former hasn’t been the same since a leg injury in 2019 ended his season before it began, and the latter is limited athletically; and cornerback Hugh Nelson II started seven games on the outside. That’s the entirety of this defense’s proven production.
Its identity, strengths or weaknesses are just about impossible to glean at this point. Coordinator Jacob Yaro is a holdover from the Graham era who has shown an affinity for the 4- 2-5 and an interest in pass rushing linebackers, but to impart anything beyond that on this bunch seems an immutable task.
Hawaii’s defense this season is just going to try to get some fresh air and exercise while its coaches sort through to see if they have anything to build around from the depths of the team or from their haul of transfers. JUCO linebackers Demarii Blanks and Noah Kema, Iowa State safety Virdel Edwards, Cal Poly tackle Jojo Falo, Oregon State defensive back Jojo Forest, Nebraska linebacker Wynden Ho’ohuli, Minnesota Morris cornerback Billy Mitchell III and Arkansas defensive end Mataio Soli all arrival by way of the portal, many of whom are returning home to Hawaii in the process.
There’s no potential surprise breakthrough here. This will bad. Perhaps as bad as any defense in America.
But if some of the new faces and a few of the old ones, like young defensive backs Leonard Lee or Peter Manuma – both of whom shone in the spring game – are able to make positive plays and show signs of growth, that’s a successful campaign for a staff and a program working harder on reestablishing its roots locally and rejuvenating its team culture than on any football concept this offseason.