When the run-and-shoot offense was implemented at UH in 1999, the playbook consisted of three running plays: short trap, long trap and draw. The running backs practiced with the offensive linemen. In some offensive drills, a running back was not even on the field.
Despite such limitations, these running backs became a symbol of toughness: Avion Weaver, Thero Mitchell, Michael Brewster, West Keliikipi, Reagan Mauia, Nate Ilaoa. In 2007, Ilaoa and Mauia were drafted — remarkable for a one-back system in which the football was thrown 67.3 percent of the plays.
Last year, the Warriors aligned the running back directly behind the quarterback, and shifted, slightly, the emphasis. Alex Green became the first 1,000-yard rusher in the 12 years of UH’s four-wide offense.
Green has departed for the NFL, but the revised running attack remains. “We’re a passing team,” UH head coach Greg McMackin said, “but we want to run, too.”
The top three candidates — Sterling Jackson, Joey Iosefa and John Lister — have diverse backgrounds but share a common bond. None has played in an NCAA game.
“They’re all different,” said Brian Smith, who coaches the running backs.
Jackson, who was raised in Georgia, joined the Warriors as a walk-on transfer in August 2010. He redshirted last year, and recently went on scholarship. Lister, who is from California, and Iosefa, who was raised in American Samoa, both signed with UH in February 2009. They were part-time students that fall, joined the Warriors in January 2010, and redshirted last year.
Jackson, who can run 10 yards in 1.61 seconds, second-fastest among the Warriors, “has all of the physical traits you want in a back,” Smith said. “He’s physical, and has size and speed.”
Smith said Iosefa is a physical “downhill runner.” Smith said Lister “has the best vision of the group.”
Jackson is quiet, but adventurous. He learned to surf, and is seeking to sky dive. Iosefa, who is fluent in Samoan and English, is taking classes in political science and civil engineering. Lister is outgoing and thoughtful.
“We’re all good friends and good teammates,” Lister said. “It’s cool to see people from different parts of the world, and to relate to them. You get good friendships that way.”
Jackson, who attended junior college in California, concedes that he is surprised he ended up in Hawaii.
“I kept going West,” Jackson said. “It’s real hard. I’m close to my family. I think about them all of the time. I call every day, and Skype whenever I can.”
Iosefa had to make the biggest adjustments. He was a quarterback and defensive back in high school. His first UH lessons centered on “working on handoffs.”
His running style was developed from years of playing rugby.
“You do a lot of stuff in rugby that a running back does,” he said.
Iosefa said he has gained 30 pounds at UH, and now weighs 230. His long-term goal is to be a political heavyweight. The future governor of American Samoa?
“Hopefully,” he said, smiling.
It appears the UH running back is no longer the sixth lineman. Not including yards lost to sacks, which are credited to rushing totals, the Warriors averaged 6.49 yards per rush in 2010.
Sterling Jackson, Joey Iosefa and John Lister are competing for the No. 1 job. Iosefa recently pulled ahead because of his blocking and running skills. But freshman Will Gregory, who is fast enough to be considered for kickoff returns, gives the Warriors a perimeter threat.
Another intriguing prosepct is freshman Jared Leaf, who is built like a fullback, but is agile and has sure hands. He has made several leaping catches during preseason training.