By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
HONOLULU — The University of Hawaii opens its season against national name-brand No. 24 USC on today (5 p.m. HST, CBS Sports Network; Ch. 247 or 1247 HD on Oceanic Time Warner) at Aloha Stadium with question marks that won’t be answered, at least from a big-picture viewpoint, until the Warriors really get their feet wet with several games and everyone gets healthy.
The last two times the Trojans visited the islands it was football high-scoring paradise for the fans. The scores were 63-17 in 2005 and 49-36 in 2010, with one big exciting play followed by another. Unfortunately for the UH faithful the Warriors were on the wrong end both times.
In UH coach Norm Chow’s debut last year, the two teams opened the season at the Los Angeles Coliseum and USC adequately defended its home turf with a resounding 49-10 victory. Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley dissected UH’s defense to the tune of 23 of 38 passing for 372 yards and four touchdowns
The good news is he’s gone to the NFL, employed as a backup to Philadelphia Eagles QB Michael Vick. The bad news is USC returns a lot of talent. A dozen Trojans have landed on the official Watch List for national 2013 postseason awards; UH has none.
After licking their wounds, the Warriors returned home and took out their frustrations two weeks later in a 54-2 pounding of Lamar, from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA). Then UH fell down a dark, deep tunnel, and didn’t climb out until eight straight losses piled up.
During that time, there were little cheers for Norm and his guys. But the book is closed on that 3-9 record. It’s a brand new season and that brings a refreshing clean slate.
In the grand sports tradition of being optimistic while still undefeated before the first game is played, the Warriors were filled with enthusiasm, especially during training camp. It helped that two players in important positions charged forward or Imua for the Hawaiian-themed football program.
Ohio State transfer Taylor Graham solidified his standing as the No. 1 quarterback, and freshman defensive tackle Kennedy Tulimasealii flashed the promise, particularly a nose for busting through gaps and finding the football, that made him an ESPN Top 300 recruit, ranked 187th. Graham, a 6-foot-5 junior, stood tall in the pocket and fired passes all over the practice field.
However, the son of former New York Giants quarterback Kent Graham is unproven. He looked good at practice. Games are different. He was a backup for the Buckeyes. How his success on the practice field translates to game time is a question mark.
Sometimes, backups from big-name schools don’t make much of a dent. Last year’s starting quarterback Sean Schroeder, who started 11 games, didn’t compete in spring drills after undergoing back surgery in April. The Duke transfer completed only 175 of 344 passes for 51 percent and 1,878 yards. (Most coaches prefer a completion rate of 65 percent.) He threw for 11 touchdowns, but negated that production with 12 interceptions.
Maybe Schroeder’s struggles could be attributed to a leaky offensive line. According to stats on ncaa.com, UH ranked near the bottom among the 340 Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I) teams in sacks allowed, surrendering an average of more than three per game. In any case, Schroeder, a 6-3 senior, will be on the bench, after starting for the first time in his collegiate career. At Duke, the left-hander didn’t see any action in 2010 or ‘11.
Three offensive line starters are back in Ben Clarke, who started all 12 games as a true freshman, Mike Milovale, and Dave Lefotu. The old adage that experience only helps will likely apply to the trio. Two homegrown products are also slated to start, a pair of juniors in Frank Loyd Jr. (Moanalua High) and Sean Shigematsu (Kapaa High from Kauai).
Both have ample size. Shigematsu, who’s tasked with protecting Graham’s blind side at left tackle, is 6-5 and 290 pounds. Loyd is 6-3 and 285 pounds. Both were recruited by former coach Greg McMackin, who hit the local recruiting road hard after he replaced June Jones in 2008.
Their success could only boost local recruiting down the line. But probably a bigger lure to stay home and play at UH is the addition of Chris Naeole, the new O-line coach. He played 13 years in the NFL for the New Orleans Saints and Jacksonville Jaguars.
At least, Chow landed one of the state’s top recruits in 6-3, 285-pound Tulimasealii, from Waianae High, and several other local products, including Aofaga Wily. The former Kahuku High running back could see extended playing time with junior Joey Iosefa, who rushed for 463 yards on 125 attempts last season, out with a foot injury.
Tulimasealii is sidelined with a knee sprain. The Warriors will cross their fingers that he and Iosefa get healthy in a hurry. UH’s first four games are quite the challenge. After USC, the Warriors hit the road to take on No. 25 Oregon State. Then it’s on to Nevada, and Fresno State at home.
Last season, Nevada running back Stefphon Jefferson took UH’s run defense to the cleaners. He went off for 170 yards on 31 carries, a 5.48 per rush average, and tied an NCAA record with seven touchdowns in the 69-24 beatdown.
The good news is he’s gone. The bad new is Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo, who was 14 of 20 passing for 220 yards, is back, and he’s only a junior, following former QB Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps in running the pistol offense to near perfection.
At Bulldog Stadium, Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr rained on UH’s secondary with 15 of 23 completions for 304 yards and four touchdowns, and no interceptions. The 45-10 game got ugly out of the gate; the Bulldogs led 42-3 at halftime.
UH lost its best player in the secondary when Mike Edwards skipped his senior season, and declared for the NFL draft. The undrafted free agent is with the New York Jets.
The Warriors return three players, John Hardy-Tuliau, Marrell Jackson and Ne’Quan Phillips, in the secondary. Charles Clay saw significant time as a safety and was the nickelback. The 2009 Hilo High graduate has high hopes for the season.
“We’ll have a great season. I can feel it,” he said. “I’ve never been around a team with this much camaraderie. It’s pretty cool. I’m excited for this season.”
UH has 18 returning starters (17 if Schroeder is excluded), nine on offense and eight on defense. UH gets the added motivation of improving on last season’s 1-7 last-place record in its Mountain West Conference debut. Despite getting torched a few times, the Warriors ranked 11th in passing defense.
An NCAA-leading eight season-ending injuries, including four on the defensive line, can’t be repeated, right? There are no Division I-AA doormats on the schedule, so the challenge of playing tough competition should bring out the best in UH, right?
During the waning days of training camp, second-year coach Norm Chow took a deep breath at a nearly empty Aloha Stadium, and, in a thoughtful moment, offered a healthy perspective on his team’s outlook.
“I like the energy and commitment that we’ve all made to make this thing better,” he said. “Do we have enough talent? We won’t know until we play games. But I like our commitment and everyone is working hard.
“Everyone is disappointed about last year. It’s a feeling that will linger until we play a game. We’ve done a nice job getting ready, and we’re looking ahead to the season.”