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Hawaii Rainbow Warriors football is actually exciting again

Hawaii responded to a brutal opening stretch by winning its first bowl in a decade. That’s great, because here comes another brutal opening stretch.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Hawaii Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

By the end of September 2017, the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors will have traveled to Massachusetts, Los Angeles, and Wyoming. That is a staggering number of frequent flyer miles, but it cannot hold a candle to 2016’s slate:

Hawaii opens in Sydney, travels to Ann Arbor, returns home for a week, and heads to Tucson. That’s five projected top-70 opponents, four away from home, and three in the first four weeks.

That is insane. Hawaii's always going to travel silly miles, but ... Hawaii to Sydney to Ann Arbor to Hawaii to Arizona, all before September 20. (Here's where you're free to make your own "...all while going to class" remark.)

If the Warriors can maintain morale and health, they might find wins. They do get a bye after Arizona, and of their nine remaining opponents, six are projected 90th or worse. If UH overachieves its No. 118 projection, then getting to 6-7 wouldn't be out of the question.

If nothing else, Nick Rolovich knew exactly what he was getting into.

Thirteen minutes in, Hawaii was tied at 14-14 with Cal in Australia. The Warriors got outscored 37-17 the rest of the way, though, and then trekked to Michigan to get destroyed, 63-3. They survived UT Martin at home, then went to Arizona and found themselves trailing 34-7 after a dead-legged first half.

At this point, it didn’t look like there was much hope of overachieving that No. 118 offseason projection. Even with easier games remaining, it looked like this brutal start was going to be too much for Rolovich’s first Hawaii team.

In the second half against Arizona, though, Rolovich made a quarterback change. Hawaii scored 21 second-half points in a 47-28 loss, and after a bye week, they won three of four, including romps over Nevada and San Jose State and a road upset of Air Force.

Dru Brown took over the offense, and the schedule let up. That was all it took for Hawaii to rebound and pull off a 17-point bowl upset of a Middle Tennessee team that had taken down Louisiana Tech and Missouri.

You’ll rarely see a .500 season that feels like more of a success than Hawaii’s. It was the combination of resilience and an increasingly competent offense, and there’s no reason to assume that either will disappear before 2017 begins.

Brown and running back Diocemy Saint Juste return to form one of the MWC’s scarier backfields, nine of the top 11 receiving targets and three starting offensive linemen return, and Hawaii again faces plenty of teams with shaky projections (six projected 105th or worse in S&P+).

Granted, a good secondary has to rebuild, and Hawaii is also given a shaky projection (109th) because of it. But if what we saw is what we’ll see from Rolovich moving forward, further overachievement is to be expected.

Rolovich was uniquely qualified for Hawaii. The former Hawaii quarterback racked up even more frequent flyer miles during a pro career that took him everywhere from Las Vegas to East Germany, and including two years as a student assistant, he had served six years as a Hawaii assistant. His stint as Nevada offensive coordinator didn’t go incredibly well, but when it came time to run his own program, he thrived.

Or at least, he has so far. The 38-year-old has a job that will never be easy. Hawaii has both a shaky budget and grand ambitions. It has to scrimp and take on ridiculous road trips, and it wants to one day be attractive enough to get a Pac-12 invitation. We can talk about how likely that is, but that’s where the school finds itself.


2016 in review

2016 Hawaii statistical profile.

Hawaii overcame a 1-3 start to win a bowl, but that feels like an oversimplification. There were lots of twists. Among other things, the Warriors had to fall off a cliff in early-November, then rebound a second time.

Hawaii vs. Vegas

There are two ways to look at this. The first is chronological.

  • First 4 games (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 19% (27% offense, 9% defense) | Yards per play: Opp 7.5, UH 5.6 (minus-1.9)
  • Next 4 games (3-1): Avg. percentile performance: 63% (70% offense, 65% defense) | Yards per play: UH 7.3, Opp 5.2 (plus-2.1)
  • Next 3 games (0-3): Avg. percentile performance: 16% (18% offense, 43% defense) | Yards per play: Opp 7.3, UH 4.3 (minus-3.0)
  • Last 3 games (3-0): Avg. percentile performance: 48% (67% offense, 39% defense | Yards per play: UH 6.6, Opp 6.0 (plus-0.6)

Hawaii was awful, then good, then awful, then solid. You can tie the middle acts to specific changes, too: Brown took over after four games, but then Diocemy Saint Juste got hurt and missed two of the three awful games.

The second way is to note most of the good opponents came during those two parts.

  • Hawaii vs. S&P+ top 100 (2-6): Avg. percentile performance: 26% (31% offense, 37% defense) | Yards per play: Opp 7.0, UH 5.2 (minus-1.8)
  • Hawaii vs. No. 101-plus (5-1): Avg. percentile performance: 52% (66% offense, 41% defense | Yards per play: UH 7.1, Opp 5.6 (plus-1.5)

Now, just about everybody produces better raw numbers against worse teams, but percentile averages are adjusted for opponent. And while the defense played at the same opponent-adjusted level against good and bad teams, the offense dominated bad teams and got dominated by good ones.

Simple opponent strength had something to do with Hawaii’s ups and downs, but the Warriors were still much better with Brown and Saint Juste in the backfield, as they’ll do in 2017.


Offense

Hawaii offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Rolovich brought another former Hawaii player to lead his offense. Brian Smith was Rolovich’s center at the turn of the century and served under Greg McMackin on the Islands from 2008-11. Ups and downs aside, Hawaii’s offense improved dramatically in Smith’s first year.

  • Off. S&P+ ranking: from 119th in 2015 to 74th in 2016
  • Rushing S&P+: from 109th to 61st
  • Passing S&P+: from 112th to 62nd
  • Standard Downs S&P+: from 117th to 46th
  • Passing Downs S&P+: from 106th to 93rd
  • Points per scoring opportunity: from 77th to 11th

Hawaii did an infinitely better job of staying on schedule and turning chances into points, and while the Warriors didn’t have much to offer the better teams on the schedule, well, they’re not in the Pac-12 just yet. There are plenty of iffy defenses to feast on in 2017.

Brown is a huge reason why. Even with the early-November funk, Brown combined a 62 percent completion rate with 6.5 yards per carry. His raw stats put him in the 83rd percentile among dual-threat quarterbacks, and if he had started the whole year, he would have ended up with something like 3,300 passing yards and 600 non-sack rushing yards.

Saint Juste’s junior season was ridiculously up-and-down — in 12 games, he averaged at least 6.8 yards per carry five times and 4.3 or lower five times — but he finished strong, rushing 39 times for 292 yards against UMass and MTSU. He’s a powerful runner for his stature (5’8, 195 pounds), and among the 79 FBS backs with at least 165 carries last year, he was one of only 13 to combine a 41 percent opportunity rate with an average of at least 6 highlight yards per opportunity. (Translation: he was both efficient and explosive.) His season averages in those categories were nearly identical to those of Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, albeit against a lesser schedule.

And he’s got an exciting backup in mid-three-star redshirt freshman Freddie Holly III.

Hawaii v Wisconsin
Diocemy Saint Juste
Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Most of last year’s supporting cast returns, though the primary loss is a big one. Receiver Marcus Kemp’s production trailed off (yards per catch: 17.5 through eight games, 9.7 thereafter), but he still finished with 1,100 yards at 9.2 per target. Only one other player had more than 351 yards, and among players with at least 20 targets, no others averaged better than 8.2 yards per target.

It’s hard to know where the big catches will come from without Kemp. Ammon Barker averaged 14.1 yards per catch, and tight end Metuisela `Unga averaged 15.1, but they combined for just 27 receptions.

That said, efficiency shouldn’t be an issue. Slot receivers John Ursua and Dylan Collie each produced a success rate over 50 percent, and ‘Unga was at 65 percent. And the return of Devan Stubblefield and Isaiah Bernard won’t hurt. The duo combined for 51 receptions and five touchdowns in 2015 but missed last season.

Big plays are cheat codes — you don’t have to make as many efficient plays in a row if you’re eating up bigger chunks — and it’s not evident that Hawaii will have any big-play guys outside of Saint Juste. But the possession options are obvious, and a line that returns all-conference tackle Dejon Allen and three others with starting experience should do its part. It would surprise me if this offense doesn’t exceed its No. 76 projection.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Arizona
John Ursua
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Hawaii defensive radar

Rolovich hired four-decade veteran Kevin Lempa to lead his defense, and after a woeful start, the Warriors rounded into form a bit. This was never a dominant unit, but Hawaii was able to corral lesser offenses. And the job the defense did against a dangerous MTSU was impressive.

Lempa left in February, however, to join former boss Don Brown, Michigan’s defensive coordinator, as an analyst. Into Lempa’s office moved line coach Legi Suiaunoa.

Last year’s Hawaii defense wanted to be aggressive and was good at it at times; the Warriors ranked 54th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 30th in linebacker havoc rate. And after a miserable start, the pass defense showed signs of disruption. Over the final 10 games, Hawaii cut its completion rate allowed from 68.6 percent to 59.9 and its passer rating allowed from 169 to 140.6. These aren’t great numbers, but they were tolerable.

Suiaunoa’s first defense has some turnover. Only three linemen finished with more than 18 tackles last year, and two are gone. And perhaps more damaging, four of last year’s top six tacklers in the secondary have to be replaced. The return of injured safety Daniel Lewis Jr. will mitigate that a bit, but turnover in the secondary is especially correlated to regression.

Still, if you could choose any two players to bring back, you would have almost certainly go with middle linebacker Jahlani Tavai (19.5 tackles for loss) and safety Trayvon Henderson (10.5 tackles for loss, 10 passes defensed). Tavai was 14th in the country in TFLs, and Henderson was one of only four players with double-digit TFLs and PDs. The other three: Clemson’s Christian Wilkins, Oklahoma’s Jordan Evans, and WKU’s Keith Brown. Good company, that.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Arizona
Trayvon Henderson
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Tavai and Henderson return, as do linebackers Malachi Mageo and Russell Williams Jr. and end Meffy Koloamatangi, who led the line in TFLs and sacks. The disruptive pieces return, even if the depth does not.

I’m intrigued by some potential new players up front — for instance, mid-three-star JUCO end Jamie Tago, sophomore end Kaimana Padello, or wonderfully named three-star freshman tackle Blessman Ta’ala. If two are able to contribute, and sophomore tackles Samiuela Akoteu and Viane Moala step forward, the line could improve.

The biggest issue, then, could be cornerback. Hawaii basically played only three last year, and two (Jalen Rogers and Jamal Mayo) are gone. Rojesterman Farris II had one interception and three breakups as a freshman, and Lewis could slot in at corner if he needs to, but the known quantities are minimal.

If the defense improves, recruiting might be to thank. Per the 247Sports Composite, Rolovich has signed 17 three-stars over the last two classes, and if exciting three-stars like defensive backs Mykal Toliver and Donovan Dalton, linebacker Paul Scott, and linemen Ta’ala, Maxwell Hendrie, and Anthony Mermea are able to carve out niches, the depth and potential rise. Toliver and Hendrie have already been through redshirt seasons, so perhaps they are the most likely.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Air Force
Jahlani Tavai (31) and Zeno Choi (99)
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Hawaii got a boost from special teams last year; the Warriors ranked fifth in field goal efficiency and 16th in punt efficiency, which powered a No. 7 overall ranking in Special Teams S&P+.

The bad news: Rigoberto Sanchez was both the place-kicker and punter. He was also a senior. John Ursua was semi-efficient as a punt returner, but he is now, by default, the most proven entity in the special teams unit. Consider this a reset.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
26-Aug at Massachusetts 111 -2.1 45%
2-Sep Western Carolina NR 20.8 89%
9-Sep at UCLA 34 -21.4 11%
23-Sep at Wyoming 80 -10.0 28%
30-Sep Colorado State 43 -14.2 21%
7-Oct at Nevada 117 -1.0 48%
14-Oct San Jose State 105 1.8 54%
28-Oct San Diego State 52 -12.9 23%
4-Nov at UNLV 118 -0.8 48%
11-Nov Fresno State 115 3.7 58%
18-Nov at Utah State 73 -12.2 24%
25-Nov BYU 46 -13.8 21%
Projected S&P+ Rk 109
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 76 / 118
Projected wins 4.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -6.6 (97)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 120 / 122
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -8 / -11.6
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 60% (64%, 56%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 6.7 (0.3)

This isn’t the first time I’ve written this in a MWC team preview this year, but I’m excited about this offense. Hawaii boasts an awesome backfield, a proven line, and a receiving corps that has depth and efficiency, if not play-making ability. Despite not starting Brown for the first four games, the Warriors ended up 74th in Off. S&P+, and I see improvement on the way.

If Rolovich and the Warriors are to back up last year’s seven-win season, though, it’s on the defense. Hawaii is projected 118th in Def. S&P+, and while I do think newcomers up front should prevent the Warriors from being quite that bad, the secondary has question marks.

The schedule also provides its own issues, and I’m not even talking about travel. While there are six iffy teams on the schedule, there are also five teams projected 73rd or better. Hawaii got manhandled most of the time by teams that decent in 2016. And with a win probability of 28 percent or worse in six games, the Warriors might have to sweep all of the more winnable games to bowl again.

Even if there’s a bit of a setback, Rolovich has already proved his recruiting and in-season management. There is energy here, and while Saint Juste and Trayvon Henderson are seniors, most of the other pieces will return in 2018.

Last year generated true football excitement in Honolulu for the first time in a while, and there’s reason to believe it will continue.


Team preview stats

All preview data to date.