POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 27, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 8:00 p.m. HST, Aug 28, 2013
SEVENTH IN EIGHT-PART SERIES
University of Hawaii football coach Norm Chow went out and recruited an impressive group of freshman receivers to help open up his offense in Year 2.
Expecting them to do that during their first week of school is a little tough.
That's where senior Chris Gant comes in.
Following a breakout performance in this year's spring game, Gant will fill a critical role for the Rainbow Warriors as one of quarterback Taylor Graham's more reliable weapons.
At 6 feet and 185 pounds, Gant is one of the few experienced returning receivers for Hawaii, especially with Billy Ray Stutzmann ruled out of Thursday's opener against No. 24 Southern Cal.
By necessity, that makes Gant one of Graham's go-to guys to begin the year.
"I wanted to be in this position last year and it just didn't work out for me," said Gant, who had 22 catches for 232 yards and a team-leading three touchdowns in 2012. "Better late than never."
As a junior college All-American, Gant broke single-season records at Moorpark College in California, catching 81 balls for 1,134 yards and seven touchdowns in 10 games.
He spent much of his junior year battling injuries, including a collarbone issue that kept him from raising his arm above his shoulder.
That's not a good thing for a guy whose main role is to catch footballs.
"It wasn't easy," Gant said. "But I felt later in the season once I got healthy, I got a grasp for what (the coaching staff) wanted and now I hope to carry that momentum over to this season."
It sure did in the spring game, when Gant made five catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
His production will help ease a concern with depth at the receiver position, which was responsible for only 12 touchdown catches in as many games in 2012.
The situation worsened in the offseason when Trevor Davis transferred.
Prior to fall camp, UH was dealt another blow when Stutzmann was involved in a car accident. He's been unable to practice at full strength during camp and is recovering from a concussion.
That leaves Gant, along with Scott Harding, as the top two returnees who will have to carry a bigger load, especially early in the season.
Freshmen Marcus Kemp, Keith Kirkwood and Ammon Barker all look to be key players down the line, but are still raw and inexperienced, with only a month of practice under their belts.
"Being a senior, I definitely have got to be a leader," Gant said. "When I leave, I definitely don't want the university to go down. I want to leave it up to these younger guys and show them what it's like to be a go-to kind of guy so that they're ready."
Graham, who sat out last season after transferring from Ohio State, has worked with Gant in practice for nearly 18 months now, and expects big things.
"He's a really competitive guy, wants to be the best he can be, and puts in the work to do so," Graham said. "Add that to his experience and his natural talent and I think the sky is the limit for him."
For the second year in a row, the Rainbow Warriors open with USC, which carries a special sentiment for Gant, who grew up just down the street from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
It was there where the Trojans won two national titles and seven straight Pac-10 championships from 2002 to '08.
It won't be the same as playing in his hometown when the Rainbow Warriors host USC on Thursday night, but the desired outcome is just as important.
"(USC) is still my home team, but this year is my last ride (at UH)," Gant said. "I've got to get a win. I don't want to have two losses."
Crusader in Laramie: Former Saint Louis standout Jason Gesser will have a chance to work with one of the MWCs top passers in his first year as the Cowboys quarterbacks coach. Brett Smith led the conference in passing efficiency while completing 62 percent of his throws with 27 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Protection plan:Keeping Smith clean was an issue for the Cowboys last season, when they gave up 26 sacks for 211 yards in losses. Wyoming lost three starters on the offensive line and bring back starting guards Tyler Strong and Jake Jones.
Receiving depth: Wyoming has ample experience at three of its four receiver spots. Deep threat Robert Herron averaged 21.2 yards per catch and led the Cowboys with eight touchdown receptions. Brandon Miller caught 30 passes last year and is the teams top returning rusher with 352 yards.
Long way from Kaimuki:Former Bulldog Siaosi Halaapiapi started nine games at middle linebacker as a true freshman after Devyn Harris was injured early last season and finished tied for fifth on the team with 57 tackles. With Harris back, Halaapiapi moves outside to buck linebacker, which may give him greater opportunity to make plays in the backfield.
Youth movement: Along with Halaapiapi, defensive tackle Eddie Yarbrough is a sophomore with extensive experience. At 6-3, 257, Yarbrough led the Cowboys with four sacks.
Tormey tested: In his second year as defensive coordinator, former UHassistant coach Chris Tormey will try to tighten up a unit that finished last in the conference in total defense. The Cowboys surrendered 470 yards per game, and were particularly porous against the run, giving up 232.2 yards per game and 5.3 per attempt.
Change in command:Led by quarterback Trent Steelman, Army led the country in rushing at 369.8 yards per game and broke program records for rushing yards (4,438) and total offense (5,235). Steelman completed his playing career last fall, moving sophomore A.J. Schurr and junior Angel Santiago to the forefront this summer.
Slots paying off:Whoever emerges from the quarterback competition will have some options with the return of slotbacks Raymond Maples (1,215 yards last season) and Terry Baggett. Fullback Larry Dixon is a proven producer between the tackles after running for 839 yards last year.
Security threat:Putting the ball on the ground is one of the hazards of running an option offense, and ball security was one of the Black Knights issues last year. Army fumbled 35 times and lost 20, tying UH for the third most in the FBS.
Bacon makin a move:Geoffrey Bacon led Army with 136 tackles as a 6-foot, 207-pound middle linebacker last year. This seasons hes moving back a level to free safety.
Light on the front:At 5 feet 11 and 260 pounds, nose tackle T.J. Atimalala has at least 20 pounds on the other projected starters on the defensive line. The service academies are typically at a size disadvantage on the line of scrimmage and opponents ran for 232.3 yards per game and scored 35 touchdowns on the ground last year.
Manoa memories:Ellerson and Chris Smeland coached together at UH in 1991 and were reunited in 2009 when Smeland was hired as Armys co-defensive coordinator. They helped orchestrate a defense that held opponents to 24.3 points per game in 2010. That average jumped each of the next two years and the Black Knights gave up more than 35 points per game last season.