Making A Run At The Title!

When you put a scare into eventual co-champion Boise State, you know you've got a team. That's what Hawai'i did last year, and the vast majority of that team is back for what promises to be a very good season.

Hawai'i suffered a losing season (5-7) for only the second time in Coach June Jones' tenure in Honolulu.

Nine starters return from an offense that was 11th in the nation in total offense. Make no mistake--with the WAC's best quarterback in Colt Brennan (6-3, 190), Hawai'i's "O" will be the most explosive in the league.

All Brennan did was throw 35 touchdowns, finish with a sizzling 155.5 passing efficiency rating and break 11 school records last season, making Rainbow Warrior fans easily forget the interception-prone Timmy Chang. Brennan led the nation in total offense (4,455 yards), passing yards (358.4 per game) and touchdowns as a sophomore. Sophomore Tyler Graunke (5-11, 175) appeared in ten games last season and is capable of running the offense should the need arise.

The key to understanding Coach Jones' offense is realizing that running backs are blockers first, running only to keep defenses off-guard. Nate Ilaoa is asking the NCAA to grant him a sixth year of eligibility. He's dropped 20 pounds to gain quickness. If the hardship waiver is granted he'll be a good outlet for Brennan with 36 receptions a season ago. Jazon Anderson (5-10, 211, Jr.), brother of NFL star Jamal, should see the field in the red zone for Hawai'i this year.

Seven players with starting experience return at wide receiver. There's loads of returning talent here, paced by sophomores Davone Bess (5-10, 187) and Ryan Grice-Mullins (5-10, 174). The two exploded for more than 1,100 receiving yards each as freshman, only the fourth time in Western Athletic Conference history that two receivers on the same team have done that in the same year.

Bess was a freshman All-American after posting gawdy statistics such as 89 catches (5th in the nation) and 14 touchdowns, which tied an all-time NCAA record for freshman. He is an athletic slotback able to catch anything within reach. Given Brennan's reliability, Bess is a devastating playmaker for Hawai'i. Grice-Mullins snared 85 passes for 1,228 yards (14.4 yards per catch average) and 12 TD's. Michael Washington (5,7, 155, So.), the fastest of the trio, also will line up in the slot.

Ross Dickerson (5-10, 185, Sr.) led the wideouts with 51 catches last season. Ian Sample (5-10, 189, Sr.) is also trying for an extra year after being injured in last year's opener. The NCAA should have a decision on Sample soon. Add Jason Rivers (6-2, 187, Jr.) and Chad Mock (5-11, 171, Sr.) into the equation and you have the most talented group of receivers in the league. Rivers had 80 receptions in 2004, but sat out last year to take care of academics. Mock grabbed 42 balls last year as a backup, more catches than the starting receivers for most teams. Converted defensive back Kenny Patton (6-0, 187, Sr.) also seeks playing time.

Hawai'i has the distinction of starting both Samson and Hercules on its offensive line. The two are cousins with the last name of Satele. Samson (6-3, 311) will make the transfer from left guard to center following an All-WAC season that saw him lead the team with 32 pancakes. Many coaches believe 6'3" is too tall to be a center, but Jones is ordering the switch anyway. He'll have his best blocker going up against the great WAC middle linebackers headed by Boise State's Korey Hall.

Hercules (6-2, 302, Jr.) and Keith Ah Soon (6-1, 309, So.) are the leaders at guard with just a little over two weeks to go before the season begins. Returning starters Tala Esera (6-4, 295) and Dane Uperesa (6-5, 331), both seniors, will start at the tackle positions. Freshmen Aaron Kia (6-4, 268) and John Estes (6-1, 275) and senior Marques Kaonohi (6-1, 261) and junior Larry Sauafea (6-3, 301) provide depth.

Jones' transformation of the defense began with the hiring of mastermind Jerry Glanville, the longtime coach in the NFL, as Defensive Coordinator. Even though Glanville's direction made a difference in the play of the Rainbow defense, they still gave up 35.7 points a game and were not able to stop the run.

The defensive line has beefed up and with a year's experience of playing in Glanville's 3-4, should be much tougher in that area. Senior ends Melila Purcell III (6-5 senior) and Ikaika Alama-Francis (6-5 senior), in particular, went through extensive weight training to get to 282 and 279 pounds respectively. That work should pay off in fighting through blocks this fall to get to the quarterback. The dedication was contagious, too, as nose tackles Michael Lafaele (6-0, 306, Jr.) and Lawrence Wilson (6-0, 295, Sr.) are now strong forces to deal with. Wilson benched more than 500 pounds this spring.

Purcell's brother, Amani, transferred to the islands from Penn State and he'll also be a factor at defensive end this fall. Keala Watson (6-3, 325, So.) and Rocky Savaiigaea (6-3, 312, Fr.) are talented backups waiting on the sideline for their opportunity.

Inside linebacker Solomon Elimimian (5-11, 224, So.) finished second on the team with 83 tackles as a true freshman last year. He's going to be special. And, not only do offenses have to deal with Samson and Hercules on the line, but if they get past them, there's a third cousin, Brashton Satele (6-1, 262, Fr.), lying low to put a jarring hit on a ball carrier. Glanville and Jones are also counting on the return of Adam Leonard (6-0, 237, So.) following a knee injury. Tyson Kafentzis (6-1, 215, So.) and John Fonoti (6-3, 233, So.) are expected to start at the outside positions.

With a beefed up line and talented young linebacking crew, the only hole in the puzzle is found in the Hawai'i secondary. Free safety Leonard Peters (6-1, 199, Sr.) is the only defensive back with experience, and he missed a majority of the 2005 season after an injury against USC. He did play long enough against tailback Reggie Bush that the Heisman Trophy winner singled Peters out as the best player he went against last year!

Starting linebacker Brad Kalilimoku is trying to make the adjustment to strong safety. If he can do that, it will shore up the secondary and greatly help Jones and Glanville. In addition, A.J. Martinez (5-10, 177, Jr.) shifts to cornerback and Jones brought in nine DB's in his recruiting class. Junior college transfer C. J. Hawthorne (5-11, 165) very well could nab the other cornerback spot for Hawai'i.

When placekicker Dan Kelly had his extra point try that would have tied the game blocked by Daryn Colledge in last year's thriller, it resulted in a 44-41 Boise State win. That won't happen again as Kelly has his trajectory worked out. Punter Kurt Milne has just a 36.1 yard average that shrinks to a net of just 20 yards after factoring in the 16 yards per punt return average by opponents. Clearly, Milne has much to work on in the hang time department. Martinez will be back to field both kickoffs and punts for the Rainbow Warriors this season.

It's a tough non-conference schedule for Hawai'i, but one that they must come out of with a viable record and a healthy team. The Rainbow Warriors welcome UNLV, Eastern Illinois, Purdue and Oregon State to the islands with a lone road contest at powerful Alabama scheduled for the season opener. Consider road games at Boise State and Fresno State along with New Mexico State and Utah State and there are several formidable challenges. League games at home feature Nevada, Idaho, Louisiana Tech and Purdue.

Coach June Jones has taken the necessary steps to revamp his defense to counter the prolific offenses of the WAC. His offense is second to none, and if the secondary can perform in the pass-happy league, he could be hoisting the WAC championship trophy at the conclusion of the season. The only reason this team is not favored is because of that inexperienced secondary and the breakdown of the schedule.

Because of the roadblocks along the way, a 7-6 season and a return to the bowl season may well be significant achievements. Hawai'i always plays tough at home and poorly on the road, due to the huge number of frequent flyer miles that the team piles up each year. Given their location, they will never be able to escape this built-in fact.

EA Sports gives Hawai'i a 1.7% chance of winning the WAC. The simulations have Coach Jones' team beating everyone in the league except the two road games at Boise State and Fresno State. With a strong possibility of four non-conference losses, the Rainbow Warriors may need to beat either Boise State or Fresno State on the road to get to a bowl game.

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