Sonny Dykes, as the coach of a Power Five football team, has access to information that your average sports blogger does not. He’s got game film, scouting reports, and (presumably) a network of advanced spy satellites trained on opposing coaches’ offices. That’s his job as coach, to know exactly what he’s up against. So now that it’s time to preview Hawaii’s offense, I figure the best option is to go straight to the source. So Sonny, whatcha got?
Coach Sonny Dykes on facing Hawaii with a new coaching staff: "It's a bit of an unknown, exactly what we're going to see." @CalFootball— Jeff Faraudo (@JeffFaraudo) August 16, 2016
There might be some gamesmanship in that statement, but Coach isn’t just being obtuse for the sake of making my job harder; Hawaii’s offense is genuinely a mystery at this point. That’s because the Rainbow Warriors will be led this season by first time head coach Nick Rolovich. And while Rolovich has held the offensive coordinator position at both Hawaii (2010-11) and Nevada (2012-15), he hasn’t really established an offensive identity of his own.
His history with the Wolfpack might be giving you flashbacks of the Golden Bears getting torched by the read option, but although Rolovich was there in 2012 (the Cody Fajardo Debacle, not to be confused with the Colin Kaepernick Incident of 2010), he won’t necessarily be packing the pistol this time around. He also has experience operating the run and shoot, and hasn’t said much about which one he’ll be using in his head coaching debut.
Rolovich tipped his hand somewhat with his choice of offensive coordinator, picking up Eastern Washington’s Zak Hill. But Hill had barely gotten a month into the installation of his pass-first offensive scheme when Boise State lured him away in January. So Rolovich was forced to adjust, naming former Rainbow Warriors teammate Brian Smith to OC in July. That move came just over a month ago, so Smith’s choice of scheme (not to mention his ability to prepare it on short notice) remains to be seen.
So Coach Dykes and I are both in the dark on what kind of strategy Hawaii will debut in Sydney. We have a pretty good sense, however, of who it will be running this mystery offense. The team returns eight offensive starters, which would be a concerning development were it not for the group’s dismal performance last season. The Rainbow Warriors, who finished 3-10 (0-8 in the Mountain West), ranked 121st in FBS yards per game and 118th in scoring offense.
It’s hard to drum up too much fear based on those numbers. But who knows? Maybe a new scheme—or simply the element of surprise—will do them good. In the meantime, let’s get to know our opponents for the Sydney Cup.
Leading the Rainbow Warriors is fifth-year senior Ikaika Woolsey, who makes his 20th career start. Woolsey shared the job with USC transfer Max Wittek in 2015, playing in all 13 games and starting the team’s final four contests.
Though Woolsey has struggled with consistency in the past, his experience earned him the starting job after a brief competition in fall camp. He’ll need to improve on a career 49% completion rate, as the Warriors face a daunting early schedule with road games against Cal, Michigan, and Arizona. Woolsey has also struggled with ball control at times, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns last season. He’s not a big rushing threat either, recording 150 yards on 38 carries in 2015.
The stats may not jump out, but Woolsey will benefit from a high level of familiarity with his offensive weapons. His top four receivers return, as well as all of Hawaii’s running backs. But for all that experience, Woolsey is the only QB on the roster to have taken college snaps. Should he go down, his backup will be either freshman Aaron Zwahlen or sophomore Dru Brown.
You know you’re set at running back when your returning 1,000-yard rusher has to share the top spot on the depth chart. That’s the case for Hawaii, as senior Paul Harris—who rushed for 1,132 yards last season— will split the starting role with junior Diocemy Saint Juste. Saint Juste could provide a major boost for the Rainbow Warriors as he returns from an injury that forced him to miss his junior season. He’s the team’s biggest explosive threat, while Harris is the balanced, every-down kind of guy. We’ll be seeing a lot of Harris, who carried the ball 179 times last season and will also be returning kickoffs.
Behind them are two more seniors, Melvin Davis (who had 6 TDs last year, tied with Harris for the team lead) and Steven Lakalaka. And for this game especially, it would seem wrong to omit freshman Max Hendrie. He’s buried somewhere far down the depth chart, but as an Australian rugby player, maybe there’s a chance he makes his college football debut in front of his home crowd.
The Rainbow Warriors (which I’m beginning to think is the best team name in college football) return a whole lot of experience here too. Your starters are SR Marcus Kemp (Z), JR Ammon Barker (X), FR John Ursua (H), and SO Dakota Torres (TE). Kemp is the star of the unit, leading the team in receptions and yardage last season. Meanwhile, Barker is an interesting prospect, as he grabbed the starting job from Devan Stubblefield, who led the unit with four receiving touchdowns as a freshman.
Though this unit is deep and experienced, they’ve got a lot to prove. Not a single wideout on the roster returns a catch rate above 60%, and even star Marcus Kemp pulled in under half of his targets. If they get in a groove they could be dangerous, but they’ve had a hard time converting opportunities into consistent production.
Four starters return, and if you add in the backups the Rainbow Warriors bring back 70 starts worth of experience. This is a mostly upperclassman unit, which should help stabilize things long enough to let Woolsey find his footing. And they just got reinforcements in the form of UCLA transfer Fred Ulu-Perry, so these guys should be a solid unit.
Hopefully we’ll have more to talk about schematically in the coming weeks, but for now we’ll have to wait and see what kind of interesting wrinkles Nick Rolovich and his staff have been working on. I’m not sure what kind of trickery Hawaii would need to make up for the talent differential in this game, but Cal fans should anticipate an experienced opponent that will keep the Bears honest even if they can’t keep it close.