The Rainbow Warriors have officially turned their sights onto next season as they held their first spring practice at Cooke Field on Friday morning.
After switching to the run-and-shoot offense this past season, the ‘Bows got off to a hot start, winning six of their first seven games. However, they faded down the stretch, losing five of their final seven games including four consecutive losses. The 'Bows finished the year at 8-6 (5-3 Mountain West Conference).
“I think we just ran into the meat of our schedule,” head coach Nick Rolovich said. “Those were the best teams, and (by that time) they had some of our games on film.”
Now with a season’s worth of UH games on film, the Rainbow Warriors will need to find ways of keeping the offense inventive and keeping the opponent guessing.
That might prove to be a bit challenging, as Hawaiʻi loses several key players from this past campaign. Star receiver John Ursua elected not to return for his senior season, declaring for the upcoming NFL draft. Defensive lineman Zeno Choi and linebacker Jahlani Tavai will be graduating this spring, with Tavai also declaring for the draft
Despite losing some key players, the ‘Bows' game-day lineup will likely remain unchanged for the most part.
At quarterback, redshirt junior Cole McDonald and redshirt freshman Chevan Cordeiro return to take the helm.
Electric senior receivers Jojo Ward and Cedric Byrd also return to lead the receiving corps.
At running back, redshirt junior Fred Holly III, redshirt sophomore Miles Reed and redshirt senior Dayton Furuta all return to anchor the running game.
And of course, who could forget the big boys in the trenches. Hawaiʻi returns its entire starting offensive line from the 2018-19 season.
“There’s a lot that’s coming back within the offense that we’re excited about,” offensive coordinator Brian Smith said. “If we’re executing at a high level, we should be able to move the ball and score points against anybody in the country.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Rainbow Warriors returns nine starters, including senior defensive back Ikem Okeke, redshirt senior linebacker Solomon Matautia, junior linebacker Penei Pavihi, redshirt senior defensive back Rojesterman Farris II and junior defensive back Eugene Ford.
A big focus of spring training will be rebuilding the wide receiver depth chart. Ward (865 yards and 9 touchdowns) and Byrd (970 yards and 9 touchdowns) are both proven performers in the run-and-shoot, but in Ursua, the ‘Bows are losing the NCAA leader in receiving touchdowns. However, one receiver appears to have the early advantage in filling Ursua’s slot role.
Redshirt senior receiver Jason-Matthew Sharsh caught the eyes of all onlookers in attendance, making some great catches during drills. Rolovich couldn’t resist shouting about Sharsh’s great route-running and hands throughout practice. Sharsh also took every rep with the first team offense during the scrimmage drills. He looks to be a potential security blanket for McDonald, as the quarterback looked for Sharsh many times during practice.
Sharsh, a JUCO transfer out of Santa Barbara City College, has been used sparingly in his time in Hawai’i. After sitting out the 2017 season, he finished the 2018 season with just nine receptions. Things are looking up for Sharsh though, as he appears to have carved out a role with the offense.
“I feel like this one of the best receiving corps I’ve ever been a part of,” Ward said. “John (Ursua) is an incredible player. I learned a lot from him both on and off the field, but I feel like this group is really in tune with each other. Everybody is dialed in with each other.”
Ward also had a good practice, displaying the hands and speed that made him such an effective weapon last season. Byrd is slated to start opposite of Ward. A Fred Biletnikoff Award candidate, he is expected to be one of Hawaiʻi’s top receivers next season.
One unexpected bright spot of the first spring practice was the play of freshman receiver Jonah Panoke. Panoke made quite an impression during the receiver drills, making several acrobatic catches. He took a majority of the second team reps, and even stepped in with the first team offense when Ward needed a breather.
“He didn’t look out of place,” Rolovich said. “Jonah has a good comfort level within the offense. He plays like he has something to prove. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a contributor this season. He’s a guy that I feel we can count on.”
One of the biggest stories coming into spring practices is the quarterback competition. Despite an excellent season in which he finished eighth in the country in passing yards and tied sixth in passing touchdowns, McDonald will once again have to fend off Cordeiro for the starting quarterback job.
As McDonald was plagued by a mysterious injury in the second half of the season, Cordeiro was able to take full advantage of his opportunities. In four games, one of which he started, Cordeiro threw for 384 yards and six touchdowns, completing 61 percent of his passes. But Cordeiro appeared to be running a more simplified version of the playbook.
“In the beginning, it was more of the base plays, many of which he ran at Saint Louis,” quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzman said. “He got it in the summer, and we can’t really work with them in the summer. He really only had a camp to learn the system. He had to play catch up. Right now he’s got a good handle on it. It's going to take some time, but he’s trending up.”
The competition will be on to keep an eye on throughout spring practice. McDonald appears to have a leg up on the competition at the moment, taking all the first team reps on Friday.
“Well, (McDonald) got more snaps, and probably feels more comfortable (in the system) than (Cordeiro),” Rolovich said. “But he’s not going to sit back and put his feet up. I expect Chevan to chase him down, and I expect Cole to continue to try and separate himself.”
The ‘Bows continue spring practice Saturday morning at 8 a.m.