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After a great year and a hard year, Nick Rolovich is starting over again at Hawaii

After a surprisingly successful debut, Rolovich’s second year back on the islands was a disaster. Time to burn down the depth chart and begin anew.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, his Rainbow Warriors took on one of the most ridiculous travel slates you’ll ever see but won seven games and their first bowl in 10 years.

Last year’s Hawaii preview, then, was pretty dang optimistic. With quarterback Dru Brown, running back Diocemy Saint Juste, and key slot receiver John Ursua back, the offense was positioned to improve on its No. 74 Off. S&P+ ranking. The defense had some turnover to absorb, especially in the secondary, but hey, the Warriors were 109th in Def. S&P+ in 2016 — it’s not like the drop-off could actually be that steep, right?

Another tricky schedule suggested a setback to something in the 5-7 neighborhood was possible. But as long as a few key guys stayed healthy and some recent star recruits began to produce, there was reason for optimism in 2018 and beyond.

2018’s here. Rolovich’s job looks much, much harder than it did a year ago. What happened?

For starters, cornerback went from question mark to disaster. JUCO transfer Manu Hudson-Rasmusson struggled, sophomore Zach Wilson hurt his wrist and only played two games, and freshman Eugene Ford was a freshman. Hawaii allowed a 70 percent completion rate, a 189.5 passer rating, and 39 points per game in its first six games against FBS competition.

Then Ursua tore his ACL. Seven games into the year, Brown had a decent QB rating of 141.2 and was averaging 12.9 yards per completion with Ursua leading the way. Brown’s last five games, without Ursua: 9.2 yards per completion, 112.9 passer rating.

Add in instability on the line — only two linemen started all 12 games, and eight started at least one — and you’ve got a recipe for offensive collapse. Just as the defense was stabilizing, the offense vanished, and after a 2-0 start, Hawaii went 1-9 the rest of the way.

  • First 2 games (2-0): Avg. score: UH 40, Opp 27 | Avg. yards per play: UH 6.5, Opp 5.5 (plus-1.0) | Avg. percentile performance: 71% (81% offense, 40% defense)
  • Next 5 games (1-4): Avg. score: Opp 39, UH 25 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 8.1, UH 6.6 (minus-1.5) | Avg. percentile performance: 27% (51% offense, 23% defense)
  • Last 5 games (0-5): Avg. score: Opp 32, UH 14 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.2, UH 4.4 (minus-1.8) | Avg. percentile performance: 15% (18% offense, 30% defense)

And then guys started transferring. Brown went to Oklahoma State, leading receiver Dylan Collie went to BYU, starting safety Daniel Lewis announced a grad transfer as well, defensive tackle Viane Moala left for Utah, and others simply left. And for good measure, defensive coordinator Legi Suiaunoa left to become a position coach at Oregon State, meaning Rolovich will be on his third DC in three years this fall.

To summarize, a year after falling from seven wins to three, Rolovich must replace

  • his defensive coordinator
  • his starting quarterback
  • his starting running back (Saint Juste), plus his top backup
  • three of his four leading receivers (a.k.a. the top three guys in Ursua’s absence)
  • an all-conference left tackle (Dejon Allen), plus four others from the “eight guys started at least one game” pool
  • his top three defensive linemen (Moala, David Mona, and Meffy Koloamatangi)
  • his top three safeties (Lewis, Trayvon Henderson, and Keala Santiago)
  • for good measure, both return men (Collie and Keelan Ewaliko)

Goodness. I say “hard jobs remain hard” a lot, but as Rolovich himself put it, the Warriors “got a little dose of reality” last year.

I still like Rolovich. It’s only his third year, I like his latest DC hire, and he’s recruiting well — per the 247Sports Composite, his last two classes have each ranked in the top half of the Mountain West. Last year’s problems had more to do with personnel difficulties he hadn’t had time to address yet than anything else.

His job isn’t going to get any easier this year, though. The schedule eases up a tad and could allow for a rebound to four or five wins, but ... sheesh, that’s a lot of turnover.

Offense

2017 Hawaii offensive radar

Honestly, when the turnover is this drastic, the best way to go about things might be to simply list assets. With all that’s gone, what does Hawaii actually have in 2018?

  • Offensive coordinator Brian Smith. The third-year assistant (and Rolovich’s former center at UH) helped to engineer an impressive turnaround in 2016 (from 119th to 74th in Off. S&P+) before watching the offense fade to 89th in Ursua’s absence. And with Saint Juste gone, Smith and Rolovich will be going back to their roots, opening up more of a run-and-shoot.
  • Ursua! The junior-to-be has caught 100 passes for 1,319 yards and eight touchdowns in a season and a half. He is one hell of an asset when healthy, and typical ACL recovery time suggests he’ll be fine by the fall.
  • Quarterback Cole McDonald. Granted, the sophomore has to beat out Marshall transfer Kyle Gallup, freshmen Jeremy Moussa and Chevan Cordeiro, Sacramento State and SMU transfer Kolney Cassel, and Larry Tuileta, the UH volleyball team’s starting libero (“the University of Hawaii’s best indoor passer”), for the No. 1 QB job. But McDonald proved extremely athletic in rushing 16 times for 138 yards in 2017. He threw only nine passes (and completed five for 22 yards), but he could be an asset one way or another.
NCAA Football: Hawaii at UCLA
Cole McDonald
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
  • Slot receiver Kumoku Noa. The sophomore did his best in Ursua’s absence, catching 11 balls for 140 yards over the last five games. His marginal efficiency was plus-23 percent, better than Ursua’s (plus-17) and easily the best on the team, albeit on only 15 targets. Senior Marcus Armstrong-Brown was also semi-efficient (plus-5 percent), though with no explosiveness.
  • Receiver Devan Stubblefield. The senior caught 30 passes in 2015 but got hurt in 2016 and spent a good portion of last year in the dog house. He’s got one more season to break out. If he doesn’t, UH could be relying on either newcomers (JUCO transfer Cedric Byrd, three-star redshirt freshman Drake Stallworth, or a freshman like Michael Washington or Jonah Panoke) or late-bloomers (juniors Kalakaua Timoteo or Davine Tullis).
  • Center-turned-tackle Asotui Eli. The senior has started on the interior for three years and is apparently moving outside. Junior J.R. Hensley and sophomore Taaga Tuulima combined for seven starts last year, but beyond this trio, Hawaii will rely on newbies to fill the two-deep. Rolovich signed four JUCO transfers up front, including three-stars Kohl Levao and Alex Dalpe. Eli could be a good anchor, but we’ll see if this unit can gel.

Moving to a run-and-shoot when you’ve got only two returnees who caught more than 11 balls the year before is risky. But Rolovich is a former June Jones QB. This system is in Rolovich’s blood. The only reason UH wasn’t running it yet is that Saint Juste was just that good. (That the leading returning RB, sophomore Freddie Holly III, had nine carries last year suggests now’s as good a time as any.)

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

Defense

2017 Hawaii defensive radar

In Suiaunoa’s lone season as Hawaii defensive coordinator, Hawaii was pretty good at rushing the passer (53rd in Adj. Sack Rate) ... and that’s pretty much it. Cornerback was a mess, and the run defense wasn’t good enough to pick up the slack. Losing linebacker Malachi Mageo (7.5 tackles for loss in 2016) to injury in fall camp didn’t help, just as losing three key linemen won’t help moving forward.

Rolovich’s new DC hire is intriguing, though. Corey Batoon, a graduate of Honolulu’s Saint Louis School (the state’s high school powerhouse), spent six seasons on Hugh Freeze’s staff at Arkansas State and Ole Miss before following former Ole Miss assistant Chris Kiffin to Lane Kiffin’s staff at FAU. He is an accomplished recruiter, and he’s spent a lot of time helping to design the type of aggressive defense that tends to work on the islands.

If the front seven holds up, recruiting could pay off in the back. Hawaii gets three of last year’s top four linebackers back — Jahlani Tavai, Solomon Matautia, and Jeremiah Pritchard combined for 21 TFLs and 9.5 sacks in 2017, and Tavai and Pritchard each took part in at least eight run stuffs. UH could add not only Mageo but also recent three-star prospects in redshirt freshman Paul Scott and true freshman Khoury Bethley.

FAU deployed a larger rotation last year than Hawaii, but Batoon might have the pieces.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at UNLV
Jahlani Tavai (31)
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

At cornerback, there is at least experience. Hawaii’s pass defense stabilized late in the year, and now Rojesterman Farris II, Hudson-Rasmussen, Ford, and Wilson all return. Unfortunately, UH will be breaking in a new set of safeties, a scary thought for a team that wants to take risks.

Junior Kalen Hicks is the only safety who recorded more than five tackles last year, which means guys like sophomores Mykal Tolliver and Jay Dominique, JUCO transfer Manase Time, and mid-three-star redshirt freshman Donovan Dalton will likely have to get involved quickly.

Safety isn’t the biggest makeover on the defense, however. Rolovich in no way trusted his returning depth up front, electing to bring in five JUCO transfers — three ends, two tackles — including three-star tackle Justus Tavai. Throw in a couple of three-star freshmen in 2016 star recruit Blessman Ta’ala and end Zach Ritner, plus 300-pound redshirt freshman Doug Russell, and you’ve got a pool of eight newcomers.

With returnees like junior 320-pounder Samiuela Akoteu and ends Zeno Choi and Kaimana Padello (2.5 TFLs each last year), we’ll say that three to four of those newcomers need to stick to create a decent rotation. That’s a tall ask, but it’s not impossible. And the linebackers should be good enough to cover up some blemishes.

That’s the optimistic take, anyway. This defense plummeted to 124th in Def. S&P+ last year, so pessimism is warranted.

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

Special Teams

After ranking seventh in Special Teams S&P+ in both 2015 and 2016, Hawaii fell apart. In the absence of ace punter and place-kicker Rigoberto Sanchez (who averaged 45 yards as the Indianapolis Colts’ punter last year), UH fell to 71st in punt efficiency with then-freshman Stan Gaudion and fell to 123rd in FG efficiency. Ryan Meskell went 1-for-4 on field goals, and Alex Trifonovitch took over and went 3-for-5. And UH’s kickoffs never reached the end zone either.

The shaky legs are back, and a decent set of return men must be replaced. Ursua’s a good return man, but ... yeah, this unit won’t be bouncing back into the top 10 in 2018.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
25-Aug at Colorado State 95 -10.7 27%
1-Sep Navy 85 -8.4 31%
8-Sep Rice 128 4.5 60%
15-Sep at Army 92 -11.5 25%
22-Sep Duquesne NR 9.9 72%
29-Sep at San Jose State 129 2.4 55%
6-Oct Wyoming 72 -11.0 26%
13-Oct at BYU 76 -15.6 18%
20-Oct Nevada 101 -4.0 41%
27-Oct at Fresno State 44 -21.6 11%
3-Nov Utah State 77 -10.6 27%
17-Nov UNLV 105 -3.4 42%
24-Nov at San Diego State 55 -19.3 13%
Projected S&P+ Rk 122
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 104 / 121
Projected wins 4.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -10.5 (115)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 105 / 119
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / -4.2
2017 TO Luck/Game +2.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 38% (24%, 53%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 3.2 (-0.2)

There are a lot of “ifs” above. If a steady QB emerges ... along with some new receivers ... and a new running back ... and new offensive and defensive linemen ... and safeties ... and if the new defensive coordinator figures some things out ... then UH could be decent.

One non-if: the schedule eases up. The Warriors ended up playing six teams ranked 77th or higher in S&P+ last year, which was too many for a team suffering injuries and dealing with a reset. Average score in those six games: Opponent 39, UH 16.

This year:

  1. UH faces only five projected top-80 teams, which isn’t that much of a downgrade,
  2. but all of those games happen in the last half of the season.

Visits from Navy, Rice, Duquesne, Wyoming, and Nevada could provide at least three to four wins, and a trip to SJSU could provide another. S&P+ projects UH just 122nd overall but projects 4.5 wins for the Warriors. Considering last year’s collapse and the number of newbies on the depth chart, that would represent a stabilizing season heading into 2019.

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