These days, Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald is wearing his emotions — and devotions — on his sleeve.
The La Mirada, Calif., native’s left forearm is tattoo-etched with an outline of the Hawaiian Islands.
The ink is symbolic of his adoration as the state’s hanai son and a metaphor for his appreciation of his Rainbow Warrior teammates. The past week, he was named a preseason candidate for the Maxwell Award as the nation’s top college football player and the Davey O’Brien Award as the best quarterback. On Tuesday, McDonald, rush end Kaimana Padello and head coach Nick Rolovich will represent the Warriors at the Mountain West Media Days in Henderson, Nev.
“I’m getting all these recognitions, but I’m just part of the body,” McDonald said. “The team’s my hands, my feet, arms and legs, everything a part of me. Without them, without my teammates, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where this recognition has taken me.”
After an Xbox-worthy season — 3,875 passing yards (eighth-most among NCAA passers), 36 touchdowns (sixth) and 146.5 efficiency rating (best for a UH starting quarterback since Bryant Moniz in 2010) — is McDonald is poised for a hana hou. This time, he is hopeful of doing it without the medical co-pays.
In the 2018 opener, in which he threw for 438 yards and three TDs against Colorado State, McDonald suffered an injury to his right meniscus. The discomfort intensified during the seven-hour return flight from Denver.
“The plane ride was the worst because I couldn’t elevate (the leg),” said McDonald, who conceded the ailment “was bothering me all year. It was hard to plant off some of the throws, and run around with a little bit with some movements. It was pretty tough coming off that first game.”
A month later against San Jose State, McDonald was struck on the right side. The impact caused fluids to accumulate in the zipper zone.
“We wanted to keep it under wraps so people wouldn’t target it,” McDonald said. The clandestine approach extended to the next game when backup quarterback Kolney Cassel dressed as McDonald during warm-ups to throw off the Wyoming coaches. McDonald did not play that game, but returned to the lineup the following week.
“That’s how I’ve always been,” McDonald said of his mouthpiece-biting grit. “Unless it’s a really serious injury, I don’t like coming out of the game. The hardest place for me to be, the toughest place for me, is on the sideline where I can’t help the team. All I want to do is help the team win. I don’t like coming off the field.”
On bouncing back, McDonald said, “the family counted on me, the team family counted on me. The fan base counted on me. That’s what it comes down to. I’m not just playing for myself. I’m playing for Hawaii, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
This offseason, McDonald has helped lead player-run practices and embraced workouts. During a weight-lifting session, Dwain Bradshaw, the team’s director of athletic performance, told McDonald he did not need to “max out” on his reps. McDonald said he was not doing that. McDonald back-squatted 425 pounds, most among UH quarterbacks.
McDonald also tweaked his throwing motion, with the intent that a tighter delivery would add zip to passes in narrow windows. During breaks, McDonald returned to California to work with Steve Calhoun of Armed and Dangerous Football, and Rick Hagedorn of Speedburners, a speed-training company in Orange County. In Hawaii, McDonald did extra training with Moniz.
“I had a long, winding motion last season,” McDonald said. “I noticed that in film (sessions). I didn’t want to change it during the season because you don’t want to make any big, major adjustments. I’ve been working with a small throwing motion — get the ball out on quicker platforms.”
Rolovich acknowledged McDonald’s previous motion was a “little bit unorthodox.” But Rolovich noted that production and command of the system are the key skills in mastering the run-and-shoot offense.
“For me, style points are touchdowns,” Rolovich said. “Put the ball in the end zone. Some people are just built a certain way.”
In practices leading to the 2018 opener against Colorado State, there were indications Cole McDonald would be good — but not 438-yards good. “Some guys, when the lights go on, they play better,” UH coach Nick Rolovich said. “He’s one of them.” Despite season-long knee soreness and an internal injury that forced a mid-year DNP against Wyoming, McDonald brought the run (5.82 yards per non-sack scramble or keeper) and shoot (38% accuracy on deep throws, with 35 completions of 25-plus yards) to the offense. Rolovich said pass-game coordinator Craig Stutzmann “deserves a lot of credit for (McDonald’s) development not just as thrower but as a quarterback.” Chevan Cordeiro had a memorable four-game cameo — including throwing the winning TD passes against Wyoming and UNLV — during a season that counted as a redshirt year. With a quick release and quicker feet, Cordeiro fired passes on the run. He escaped 10 would-be tackles last year. “I think he could be one of the most exciting players in college football,” Rolovich said of Cordeiro. “He has a real knack for extending plays.” After a two-year apprenticeship on the scout team, Justin Uahinui is contending for a spot in the rotation after a strong spring. Two freshmen (Boone Abbott, Zach Daniel) and a JC transfer (Kamali‘i Akina, who began his career at Arizona State) join the mix.
The process of replacing starting right slotback John Ursua (now with the Seattle Seahawks) and left wideout Marcus Armstrong-Brown (who completed his UH eligibility) began in the spring with slotback Cedric Byrd’s move from the left to the right. The relocation synced with Byrd’s hand-placement preference and paired him with right wideout JoJo Ward to create a speedy tandem. Flash Brothers? Byrd and Ward are sub-4.5 sprinters who combined for 1,835 receiving yards last year, including 38 catches of 15-plus yards. “I do like that Cedric and Joe kind of grew up in the system together,” Rolovich said of the JC transfers. “Putting them in together (on the right side) will be a nice combination, not only in talent but personalities.” Melquise Stovall, who began his college career at California, and Jason-Matthew Sharsh, who started in the SoFi Hawaii Bowl, have impressed as the second slotback. James Phillips, who transferred from a JC in January, had a breakout spring, drawing comparisons to former UH slot Channon Harris. Jared Smart, another mid-year JC transfer, exited spring as the top left wideout. “He has natural strong hands as a pass catcher,” Rolovich said. “He’s smart. He understands what we’re trying to do. He had a nice, nice spring.” UH is hopeful big-play abilities are genetic. Smart’s father, Keith Smart, hit the winning shot for Indiana in the 1987 NCAA championship basketball game. Three tall wideouts — 6-5 Nick Mardner, 6-3 Mekel Ealy and 6-2 Jonah Panoke — drew praise from teammates during player-run practices this summer.
The Warriors appeared to be content with the running game, opting not to sign a back to the 2019 recruiting class. Fred Holly III (team-high 468 yards, including 3.52-yard average after contact or eluding a tackle), Dayton Furuta (27 rushes for first downs) and Miles Reed (5.38 yards per first-down carry) offer different skill sets. But each has developed into sure-handed receivers on screens and shovels. They combined to secure 95.7 percent of the throws when they were the primary target.
At the end of a sub-.500 season in 2017, the line was thinning. With seven departures to graduation, medical retirements and transfers, the coaching staff pledged that rebuilding the trenches “was one of our major points of attack,” Rolovich said. As part of the return to run-and-shoot schemes, line coach Mark Weber and offensive coordinator Brian Smith simplified the blocking schemes. That enabled three newcomers — JC transfer Kohl Levao and true freshmen Ilm Manning and Solo Vaipulu — to make a smooth transition into the lineup. Levao played right tackle until moving to center for the final three games. In the middle, Levao’s power and quickness neutralized point defenders, particularly against odd-man fronts. Scouts envision Levao as one of the Warriors’ top pro prospects. Manning, at left tackle, and Vaipulu, at right guard, started all 14 games last year. In more than 950 plays, including 545 pass attempts, neither was assessed a holding penalty. During the regular season, Manning’s lone violation was drifting too far downfield on a pass play. J.R. Hensley, a co-captain last year, is set at left guard, and Gene Pryor had the edge at right tackle exiting spring training. But the Warriors, who struggled to cobble a line for the 2018 spring game, appear to be three deep. Joey Nuuanu-Kuhi‘iki, Micah Vanterpool, Taaga Tuulima and Emil Graves are among the returnees expected to be part of the rotation. The Warriors also added freshmen Arasi Mose, Bubba Wa‘a and Caden Hillborn, and transfers Eliki Tanuvasa and Michael Eletise. Tanuvasa, a Saint Louis School graduate who played at Eastern Illinois, was granted a waiver to play this season. Eletise, a former All-State lineman from Kaiser High who later played at Arizona, is awaiting a ruling on his waiver. In team testing, Eletise back-squatted 675 pounds.
It is fitting the most elite UH pass rusher since Travis LaBoy — senior Kaimana Padello — plays a specially created hybrid position. In a 40-game UH career as an edge defender, 44.1 percent of Padello’s defensive tackles (he also had three stops on kickoff coverage) were in an opposing team’s backfield. His average tackle nets minus-3.1 yards. He has committed only one penalty as a Warrior. But his best play came on a fake punt last year. Instead of breaking inside, Padello deciphered the call, blitzed to the rim, and tackled the ballcarrier for a 2-yard loss. “He really dives into information,” defensive coordinator Corey Batoon said of Padello. “The more you give him in terms of tips, cues, pre-snap recognition, he’s able to apply those things.” Derek Thomas, who split reps with Padello, has improved his hand work, leverage and positioning.Three 2018 redshirts — Jonah Kahahawai-Welch, Mason Mataafa and Zach Ritner — are poised to contribute as hybrids. Jonah Laulu, who was recruited as a 230-pound H-back, is a top contender at “bandit,” the strong-side end who aligns slightly inside the offensive tackle or across the tight end. Laulu, at 6-5, now weighs 275 pounds. Mason Vega, who has healed from an ailment that restricted his spring workouts, is up to 290 pounds and will rotate at bandit. Other strong-side candidates are Pumba Williams, Chance Kalaugher and Kamuela Borden. On the interior, Blessman Taala, Azia Se‘ei and Eperone Moananu are the top nose tackles. Kendall Hune, UH’s most valuable player of the SoFi Hawaii Bowl, and Samiuela Akoteu are the leading 3-technique defenders. Taala also has been cross-training at 3-technique. Djuan Matthews, a defensive lineman from Blinn College, joins on Thursday.
At its base, the defense is a two-linebacker format … sort of. Penei Pavihi and Jeremiah Pritchard, who redshirted during the 2018 regular season, are the top mike linebackers. Solomon Matautia and Paul Scott are the leading will backers. Kana‘i Picanco can play the mike and will. But there’s flexibility with the numerous sub-packages. With a four-man front, only two inside linebackers are employed. In a three-man front, the hybrid end can flex to outside linebacker, or one of the mikes can slide forward as a stand-up end. Jahlani Tavai, now with the Detroit Lions, and Pavihi were used in the roving role as linebacker/end last year. The Warriors also can use three linebackers to accompany a three-man front. Scott, who redshirted as a freshman in 2017, was seeking a role last year. He earned it with his coverage play on special teams. Against Nevada, he made tackles on three consecutive plays. At the awards banquet, Scott was named the Warriors’ top specialist after recording nine tackles (seven on kickoffs, two on punts).
In a 27-year coaching career that included a stint in the SEC, Batoon crafted a scheme that has many concepts originating from Dick Tomey’s flex defense. “We’re nickel based,” Batoon said. “Whether we’re playing a three or four front, it’ll be five DBs on the field most of the time.” The Warriors are expected to veer from the boundary/field alignments at the corners. Rojesterman Farris II, who made two walk-off plays last season, has emerged as a shutdown corner. Cortez Davis, a mid-year transfer who has run 100 meters in 10.69 seconds, took the majority of the spring reps as the No. 1 right corner. Zach Wilson and Akil Francisco also are in the mix. Francisco, who has improved his press coverage, had the one of the fastest 10-yard splits in team testing. Travon Killins is expected to be a key contributor, although it has not been determined if it will be at corner or nickleback. The combination of corner depth and widespread spread offenses enabled Eugene Ford to move from corner to nickelback. Ford and Kaneshiro have length, range and speed to defend inside receivers. Kalen Hicks, Donovan Dalton and Justice Augafa, who moved from running back, are the leading strong safeties. Ikem Okeke, Khoury Bethley and Tiger Peterson project to get the most work at free safety. Bethley, who played well as a true freshman, has fully healed from a leg ailment that kept him out of spring ball. Peterson was an early Kamehameha graduate who joined UH in January to learn the defensive system.
From the Ingram brothers to Brodie Nakama to Noah Borden, the Warriors have had a near-flawless run of snappers. Wyatt Tucker takes over the job this year. Hawaii has not allowed a blocked punt since the 2008 Hawaii Bowl. Stan Gaudion and Ben Scruton are punters who can launch from behind the shield or on rollouts. Ryan Meskell, who did not begin place-kicking until joining the Warriors in 2017, improved his accuracy from one of four that year to 15 of 18 last season.