As the coaching carousel reached the islands, word of Hawai'i's decision to hire Norm Chow, replacing Greg McMackin as head coach, was received mostly with warmth. An offensive genius returns home? Perfect, right?
The 66-year-old Chow takes the reins in his hometown, the first Asian-American head coach at the FBS level, and by all means, his overall resume is damn near unimpeachable: 13 years as an FBS offensive coordinator, three more in the NFL, and 20 more years as an FBS assistant, a 2002 Broyles Award, the mentorship of three Heisman winners (Ty Detmer in 1990, Carson Palmer in 202 and Matt Leinart in 2004) and national title rings from BYU (1984) and USC (2003 and 2004, if 2004 still counts). For a while now, he has been the the most accomplished career assistant to never hold a head coaching position.
But here's the deal; he hasn't led a good offense since 2004. After he returned from three years with the Tennessee Titans, he took over a UCLA offense that had ranked 109th in Off. F/+ in 2007 and led offenses that ranked 114th, 88th and 90th. When he took the Utah offensive coordinator job in 2011, UCLA's offense improved to 66th. Meanwhile, he inherited an offense that ranked 62nd in 2010, and they ranked 95th last fall. He won his Broyles Award in 2002; who won in 2001? Randy Shannon. Things change.
So if you made a hire in part because of his reputation as an amazing assistant coach, and he hasn't been an amazing assistant for a while, is he still a no-brainer good hire? (Then again, I wasn't a fan of the James Franklin hire at Vanderbilt either. So what do I know?) One thing is certain: he's connecting with the community in a way that few coaches could. He will be given time and patience, and he has responded with some ambitious recruiting -- according to Rivals.com, Hawai'i has offered two five-star prospects and eight four-star prospects from Hawai'i to Maryland. We'll see if that pays off.
Good hire or not, Chow inherits a team coming off of its third seven-loss season in four years, with an offensive system Chow is not particularly fond of and a defense that must replace seven starters. A perusal of practice reports suggests that somebody different was stepping up each day. (Glass half-full: depth! Glass half-empty: nobody seemed to step up twice.) Can Chow's seasoned, steady hand stabilize a program that has been all over the map since June Jones left for SMU?
Here's what I wrote about Hawai'i right before last season:
[I]n 2011, few programs have established a stronger identity than the Hawai'i Warriors. On offense, they are going to unabashedly throw the ball; on defense, they are going to attack you and try to hit you as hard as they can. If you keep your poise, and if you are athletic enough to make them pay for the risks they take -- they don't have a natural athletic advantage over many of the teams they play, so there is certainly risk involved in ferociously attacking -- then you can beat them. But they stick to what they know, and after a two-year crater following head coach/miracle worker June Jones' departure to SMU, Hawai'i was back in the winner's circle in 2010. They won ten games, played as well as almost anybody in the month of October, and reestablished themselves as a solid, steady mid-major program.
Many members of last fall's experienced squad are gone, meaning this year is a big one for fourth-year head coach Greg McMackin. Being a good coach means achieving success with multiple cycles of recruits. One cycle is out the door; do the replacements have what it takes to maintain Hawai'i's momentum? […]
Nine starters returning. It is difficult to overcome that. But here's where Hawai'i's strong identity could pay off. The new players know exactly what is expected of them, and ... well, Hawai'i would gain quite a few yards and score a lot of points even if they returned zero starters. The question is, will they score the right points? Will they be able to stand up to Nevada in Reno and take down Fresno State at home?
The Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 gives Hawai'i a 28% chance of finishing 6-1 or better in a weakened WAC and a 1% chance of going undefeated. That is both showing a lot of respect for Hawai'i's recent accomplishments and reminding us just how soft the WAC is. The Warriors are heading to the Mountain West next season, but in the meantime they are timing this transition team well; despite all of their personnel losses, they could quite possibly ride a strong identity to a sneaky conference title.
At times, Hawai'i looked like the class of the WAC in their final season in the conference. But those times lapsed as October turned into November.
First 3 Games: Opponents 29.7 Adj. PPG, Hawai'i 25.4 (minus-4.3)
Next 4 Games: Hawai'i 30.6 Adj. PPG, Opponents 28.0 (plus-2.6)
Final 5 Games: Opponents 29.6 Adj. PPG, Hawai'i 26.6 (minus-3.0)
Quarterback Bryant Moniz's run-pass abilities almost single-handedly made the Hawai'i offense respectable early -- he rushed for over 150 pre-sack yards against Colorado in a Week One win, almost brought the Warriors back from a 28-7 deficit against Washington in Week Two, then threw for a combined 1,558 yards in a four-week span that saw UH wallop Louisiana Tech and seemingly take control of the WAC race. But frustrating losses to Utah State and Nevada changed that, and Moniz missed the final three games of the season with injury. Hawai'i lost four of five to end the year, and McMackin resigned in early December. A 1-4 record in one-possession games suggests the Warriors were better than their record, but they still slipped quite a bit from their 2010 status, and it was not surprising that the disappointing season became McMackin's last.
It typically is not surprising to see a first-time head coach hire a seasoned, old, local coordinator to help him find his way and help with recruiting. When the first-time coach is 66 yards old, however, the pool of "seasoned, old" assistants diminishes. No worries! Norm Chow found a man by the name of Tommy Lee to hold the position. A Saint Louis (Honolulu) High School grad, Lee has 40 years of coaching experience since his playing career as Ottawa Rough Riders quarterback ended in 1963. He served as head coach of Williamette College (where he was an All-American as a player) from 1974-83, bounced around as an offensive coordinator for everyone from the Montana Grizzlies to the Toronto Argonauts, and served as Montana Western head coach from 2001-07. No word on what he has been doing from the last four years, but kudos to Chow for finding someone to make him look young.
Chow and Lee will most likely lead a pretty strong stylistic shift for the UH offense -- Chow seems to have soured on the spread in recent years and shifted Utah toward more of a run-heavy, pro-style attack last year with mixed results (to put it kindly) -- and that might be a good thing. Hawai'i was as pass-heavy as always last year, running just 34 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent) and 19 percent on passing downs (national average: 33 percent). The one problem: they weren't very good at passing. With an incredibly green receiving corps, they ranked a healthy 55th in Rushing S&P+ (explosive and inefficient) but only came in at 83rd in Passing S&P+ (efficient but not at all explosive). Hawai'i returns almost every receiver from last year's roster, including leaders Billy Ray Stutzmann and Jeremiah Ostrowski. For better and for worse, and they already got a head start on replacing Moniz at the end of last season and they have a wealth of options at both quarterback and receiver. Options, however, aren't necessarily the same thing as good options.
It appears that either junior David Graves, Utah State transfer Jeremy Higgins or true freshman Ikalka Woolsey will take over behind center, but it might still take a while to figure out the winner of that race. While four-star Ohio State transfer Taylor Graham waits his turn in 2013, the quarterback of choice will evidently be doing a lot of two things: handing the ball to running back Joey Iosefa and lining up wide while Iosefa takes over as Wildcat formation quarterback. A former high school quarterback, Iosefa is the most uniquely-skilled, explosive player on the team, and indications are that Chow and Lee will try to utilize all said unique skills. He is both big (240 pounds) and explosive (2.3 highlight yards per carry), and he is most likely the offense's best player in 2012.
Iosefa will be given every opportunity to carry this offense, but he might find the going rough behind a line that A) wasn't very good last season, B) returns a paltry 20 career starts among three players with starting experience, and C) was banged up enough this spring that a recent depth chart featured one true freshman, two redshirt freshmen, and two sophomores on the first-string.
Between the shift in style and the inexperience at quarterback and on the offensive line, one would have to figure a transition year is in store for the Hawai'i offense.
While the Hawai'i offense has had a strong, pass-first identity in recent years, the defense's identity has been almost as strong in recent years: attack with pure, unadulterated recklessness. They went after big plays (74 tackles for loss, 35 sacks, 21 forced fumbles, even five blocked kicks) and in the process allowed quite a few big plays as well. As I wrote last year, they forced you to maintain your composure; if you did, you torched them, but if you didn't, they got turnovers in droves.
Eleven Warriors recorded at least 2.0 tackles for loss last season, but only three return in 2012, which probably means now is a pretty good time for a change in the coaching booth. Thom Kaumeyer takes over as defensive coordinator after spending the last three years as defensive backs coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He has nine years of experience as a college defensive coordinator -- three at Palomar College (1998-00), five at San Diego State (2002-06) and one at Tulane (2007). His teams tended to take on the same identity as Hawai'i's has in recent years: in four of his six years at SDSU and Tulane, his squads recorded a sack rate of at least six percent. They also broke up at least 60 passes four times and forced at least 14 fumbles three times. His last couple of defenses at San Diego State damaged the overall resume a bit, but it appears he will want to attack a good amount.
Though depleted, the Hawai'i defense does appear to have a few interesting, proven playmakers.
- Linebacker Art Laurel was a missile in 2011. He recorded 14.5 of his 52.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including nine sacks and he forced three fumbles. The linebacking corps is rather green -- last year's three starters (two of whom are now gone) combined for 221.5 tackles, but no backups recorded even 10 -- but Laurel assures that they do have some potential. Beau Yap, a 260-pound former end (and former three-star recruit) is an interesting addition to this unit.
- Corner Mike Edwards and free safety John Hardy-Tuliau (who played a little bit of corner this spring) combined to pick off four passes and break up another 22. Hardy-Tuliau also forced three fumbles. With his history working with defensive backs, Kaumeyer should like what he sees in these two. The secondary could get a further boost if J.T. Turner, once a four-star Michigan signee, can figure out how to get eligible at UH this summer. Three-star sophomore Bubba Poueu-Luna also looked good at times this spring and could play a key role.
- Kaumeyer hasn't been an NCAA defensive coordinator in five years, so it is difficult to know what he will try to accomplish from a style perspective. His history does suggest that, despite all sorts of new pieces, the attacking mentality fans have come to know will remain the same.
It is probably difficult for Hawai'i fans to look at this fall's schedule and not piece together a decent path to bowl eligibility. And after missing bowls twice in three years, that is a reasonable spot to place the bar. Home games against Lamar, New Mexico, UNLV and South Alabama should get them two-thirds of the way there.
We don't know how good a coach Norm Chow actually is at this stage in his career, we don't know what kind of offense he will put together with only one truly proven weapon (and a green-as-can-be line), and we don't know if the defense can pick up the slack like Utah's defense often did for Chow's offense last year. But with a schedule that features an FCS opponent and five opponents projected 102nd or worse, Hawai'i's win total shouldn't change much in 2012 despite the uncertainty.
In all, despite the doubt cast by his recent offensive trouble, it is still easy to see what Hawai'i saw in Chow. He is ridiculously experienced, he is quite unlikely to bolt for another job (not at his age, and not with his local ties), and with his combination of experience, reputation and pro ties, he will have a better chance than most at bringing some quality talent to the islands. Eventually he will need to win more games than McMackin did, however, and it has been a while since he displayed the ceiling that made him such an appealing assistant.