In what’s probably the largest roster turnover in league history, Keaau’s football team will be something of a grand exercise in answering basic questions.
From last season’s Big Island Interscholastic Federation lineup of 36, the Cougars lost at least 29 players through graduation or transfers.
An accurate number of departed players couldn’t be verified because no roster was provided to the Tribune-Herald. Based on an old Keaau roster from last season, that’s 80 percent of personnel.
“I can’t remember if we ever lost that much seniors,” said coach Kalei Young, who’s been on Keaau’s staff for nine years. “I knew coming into this year we’d have a young team with graduation and a few guys transferring out.”
Here’s the most obvious question: How will a really young team fare, especially one that finished 1-7 last year, and lost 13 players with All-BIIF recognition?
“We’ve got a group of guys who are unified, and a special group of leaders,” Young said. “Koapaka Vierra is the heart of the team. He keeps everybody positive and believing. If there’s anybody we can count on it’s him. He leads by his actions.
“The young players really look up to him. The junior varsity kids we brought up aren’t scared to talk to the seniors. They see them as big brothers. He brings that unity to us.”
Last season Keaau’s only victory came at home against Honokaa, a charter BIIF football member that finished winless for the first time in the program’s 58-year history.
The two teams meet on Saturday, Sept. 20 at Honokaa.
The nice thing about four teams in each division is that everyone automatically qualifies for the postseason. In Division I, there’s defending BIIF champion Hilo, Kealakehe, Waiakea and Keaau.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Cougars were annual title contenders. They played Kealakehe for the BIIF title in 2005, ’06, ’10 and ’11, but lost each time.
Here’s another question: What’s the most important position on an underdog team?
Most armchair quarterbacks, including Terry Bradshaw, would immediately shout, “QB,” but most everyone in the run-based BIIF would probably say, “running back.”
Well, how about a grand experiment if two could take the place of one? A quarterback who happens to really be a running back.
Richard Hatori-Kanakaole shifts from running back to QB in Keaau’s block-to-you-drop double tight end offense.
The Cougars will essentially run the Wildcat with Hatori-Kanakaole free to bolt to daylight on direct snaps, if any holes should materialize.
There’s a bit of a tradeoff with the double tight end set, though. The bigger, extra blockers rather than smaller slotbacks would be quite helpful, especially with a green line.
Of course, defenders will cram the tackle box, double daring the Cougars to throw the ball. Penetration, whether by run blitz or pass rush, is the best way to disrupt an offense’s timing, and force turnovers.
QB poise is the best solution to that. Young believes Hatori-Kanakaole fits the job description.
“One thing I love about him playing QB is he never gets shaken up,” Young said. “He never gets too high or too low. He has a steady head, and he’s very smart. He’s super athletic, and he’s got terrific footwork from soccer. He’s really shifty, and he’s got a heck of an arm.
“There’s no hiding who we’ll give the ball to. For the past several seasons, we’ve always been short of linemen. With the double tight end, we’ll have max blocking.”
Here’s another interesting question: Can canoe paddlers serve as formidable blockers?
Trevor Basford, Kainalu Kiyuna and Kenny Simmons will go down in school history as champion paddlers. They were part of Keaau’s first boys BIIF title crew in 2013.
They’ll start on the offensive line along with Jesse Bossy and Justin Tejada, who’s a classic 2014 Cougar.
“He’s one of those guys who doesn’t have a lot of size,” Young said. “But he’s got a big heart. He’s dedicated and motivated.”
Derek Kalani and Tihoti Tadeo, an All-BIIF defensive lineman, will start at tight end.
“Derek has a big heart. He’ll be a two-way player for us at outside linebacker,” Young said. “He’s the type who’ll give everything he’s got. He’s athletic, strong and has good hands.
“Tihoti has great hands and he’s athletic. He’s our No. 2 running back. We moved him to middle linebacker because he’s one of our purest tacklers.”
Byron Cachola and Maurice Smith will start at wide receiver. Cachola is also a canoe paddler, and part of the two-time defending BIIF champion crew.
Cachola, Quesada and Hatori-Kanakaole are the only returning starters on offense. Those three – with their experience, speed and athleticism – are the most dangerous weapons.
Don’t discount the double tight ends. Kalani and Tadeo will not only run and pass block in Keaau’s mixed-plate blocking scheme, but also serve as extra options, too.
Instead of just zone blocking, the Cougars will also feature man blocking, pulling, and a bit of counter cross blocking to disrupt defenses.
Then Kalani or Tadeo could block and release to find a soft spot down the field for Hatori-Kanakaole, who feels teamwork is an equally valuable asset.
“We’re a small team in size,” he said. “We play with what we have. We have pride and a big heart. Even though we’re small, everybody works together.”
Keaau ran a 3-3-5 stack last year, mainly to get more speed on the field to charge downhill and plug gaps. It was needed because the D-line was short of big guys.
It’s pretty much the same thing again. Young will go with a 3-4 look because he believes he’s got two great inside linebackers in Tadeo and Vierra.
Bossy, Basford and someone else from the O-line will see time at nose guard.
The traditional 4-3 is seen as a better way to stop the run with two tackles occupying more space. The 3-4, in theory, brings more speed to the field, but it’s also a two-gap approach.
A lineman is responsible for both sides of his blocker. If he gets blown off the ball, that’s an instant gain before a ball carrier even hits the second level.
Also, an end in the 3-4 can’t just freelance (run prevention is priority No. 1), rush the quarterback and lose containment on the perimeter. If that happens, a zone-read offense will feast in an open pasture.
Tadeo and Vierra will man the middle linebacker spots, and Simmons and Cachola will be in charge on the outside.
Cachola will also spend time in the backfield, along with Quesada, Smith and Kaeo Kahuna.
If they’re really busy making a lot of run tackles, then that’s not a good thing because ball carriers would be 10 yards down the field.
No matter what happens, the Cougars can count on Vierra, who provides the best answer for this season’s outlook.
“We’re younger and don’t have much experience,” he said. “We have to use a lot more technique. We’ve got small numbers, but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.
“With the storm, we were helping each other out, washing clothes or going to someone’s house to take a shower. We’ve got more unity off the field, and on it, too.”
Note: Wednesday’s preview: Pahoa.