Five questions: The Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Stephen Tsai on Hawai’i

Hawai’i is coming off its first bowl win since 2006 and finished last season at 7-7. Now the Rainbow Warriors are hoping to push their record to the winning side for the first time since 2010 under second-year head coach Nick Rolovich. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Stephen Tsai answered a few questions on the program’s next step, its rebuilding defense and its offensive weapons.

For more on Hawai’i, visit Stephen’s blog here.

1. Heading into the second year under Nick Rolovich, what were the biggest points of emphasis to help the program take the next step?

In a team meeting soon after being hired in November 2015, Rolovich was startled by what he termed the “emptiness in the players’ eyes.” He believe they had been worn down by five consecutive losing seasons. He worked on building team morale (players passed out schedule cards at Costco, an elaborate coaches-vs.-players water balloon fight was staged) and changing the team culture. This year, the focus has been on empowering the players to take ownership of the team. The players chose their 14-player leadership council, their four co-captains, and have a say in planning activities and discipline.2. Hawai’i ranked 113th in the country in scoring defense last year. What significant changes did new defensive coordinator Legi Suiaunoa do during the offseason to improve the group?

Suiaunoa expanded the personnel groups, allowing more players to be involved. He also added several sub-packages to complement the 4-3 base. There are schemes involving three safeties, or four linebackers, or a rover. He has implemented cross-training in which players can play several positions.

3. What makes quarterback Dru Brown and running back Diocemy Saint Juste such a potent combination for the Hawai’i offense?

Brown said the key is the large amount of time they spend together in practices and video sessions. In the run-pass-option phase of the Warriors’ hybrid offense, the exchange point — whether Brown gives the ball to Saint Juste or pulls it back for a bootleg — impacts the play’s success. This season, Brown and Saint Just have had only one bad exchange in 53 attempts.

4. What were the biggest takeaways from the first two games, a road win over Massachusetts and a home victory over Western Carolina?

First, when things are clicking, the Warriors have a multidimensional offense that can produce points quickly. But the Warriors also are their worst enemy with 20 infractions, an average of 96.0 penalty yards per game. Two touchdowns were nullified because of penalties.

5. UCLA’s offense is riding a high from its prolific comeback against Texas A&M. Who will be counted on to make plays for the Hawai’i defense against Josh Rosen and Co.?

For the first time in three years, safeties Trayvon Henderson and Daniel Lewis are both healthy. Defensive end Meffy Koloamatangi, who blocked two field-goal attempts last week, is a pass rusher who has developed into a rugged run defender. Jahlani Tavai has been the Warriors’ best overall defender, calling plays as the middle linebacker and aligning as everything from a rush end to stand-up nose.