In Hawaii’s defensive scheme, the fifth defensive back is hardly the odd man out.
The Warriors spent much of last season in their nickel packages, magnifying the role Kamalani Alo hopes to play this fall.
After redshirting in 2009 and playing primarily on special teams last year, Alo has been running with the first defense at the “quarter” position — designed as a hybrid safety and linebacker — in the Warriors’ spring practices.
“It’s a big change,” Alo said after yesterday afternoon’s session. “Last year I was coming off a redshirt year and I wasn’t really looking at reps. This year it’s a big change. You have to pick it up fast, you have to learn fast, you have to talk to the coaches extra.”
Former UH safety Spencer Smith played the quarter position last season before injuring his arm and John Hardy-Tuliau later emerged as a playmaker as a fifth defensive back as a true freshman.
With Hardy-Tuliau concentrating on playing cornerback this spring, the coaches hope Alo can provide a physical presence in that spot to help enforce against the run while keeping another defensive back on the field.
“He’s got a good feel for the game and he’s an excellent hitter,” UH head coach Greg McMackin said. “He’s a physical guy. … So if it’s second and 8, if they run we’re sitting good because he’ll be a good force guy. If they pass, we can run all of our coverages because he’s a DB.”
Nine practices into the spring, Alo, a sophomore, said he feels comfortable with his expanded responsibilities in the system. Learning the quarter position has given him a broader understanding of the entire defensive scheme while also meshing his past and present. He spent most of his high school career at Kahuku as an outside linebacker and has played safety since joining the Warriors. With the dual role as the fifth DB, he’s relishing the chance to play closer to the line of scrimmage in certain situations.
“I have to remember that I’m playing linebacker and safety,” Alo said. “So I have to remember to play run before I play pass, whereas when I was at safety it was just backpedal all the time.
“I love being more in the action, being able to hit big O-linemen. I love the challenge.”
Along with conferring with the coaches, Alo said he frequently looks to senior safety Richard Torres for guidance on the field and inspiration during offseason conditioning.
“I’ve been trying to work out with Richard just because he’s a guy I look up to and he’s one of the captains of the defense,” Alo said. “I worked out with him and just tried to keep up with his pace. He works out at the quick pace, just like he plays on the field.”
As a freshman, most of Alo’s playing time came on the punt and kickoff return teams. McMackin said he’ll play on all of the special teams units this season and his performance on kickoff coverage late last year factored into the coaches giving him an opportunity to expand his role this spring.
“Kamalani has the speed and the toughness, he’s very conscientious and he’s made a lot of improvement,” said associate coach Rich Miano, who coordinates the secondary. “He’s also going to be in the running at safety. He’s probably our most improved player throughout the spring. He came on so strong on special teams at the end of last year, he earned his stripes to play defense.”
While listening and learning is among Alo’s main objectives this spring, he took some time to teach at the end of practice yesterday. Alo, Torres and fellow Kahuku alums Paipai Falemalu, Aulola Tonga and Alema Tachibana spent a few moments teaching the haka to the Honolulu Bulls soccer club’s 98 boys team. The Bulls plan to perform it prior to their matches in Germany and Denmark this summer.
“That was fun. I always like working with the kids,” Alo said. “It always good to give back to the community any way we can.”