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Cal vs. Hawaii: Previewing the Rainbow Warriors Defense

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Hawaii comes off one of their worst defensive seasons in recent memory with a new coaching staff and renewed hope for the 2016 campaign.

Hawaii v Boise State Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

To say the 2015 Hawaii defense was abysmal is perhaps a bit of an understatement. The Rainbow Warriors unit underperformed across multiple defensive categories and had an atrocious season outside of all Mountain West defensive tackle, Kennedy Tulimasealii. Unfortunately for Hawaii, Tulimasealii was dismissed this offseason due to an off-field incident leaving the team looking to new faces to fill his void this season.

The good news for Hawaii is the 2016 Rainbow Warrior defense figures to have a much different look than the 2015 version. Newly hired defensive coordinator, Kevin Lempa, should implement a 4-3 defense and breath new life into a unit that was dead last in the Mountain West. Lempa, once upon a time Hawaii’s defensive coordinator under June Jones, returns to the Rainbow Warriors after spending the last three years at Boston College. In contrast to the Rainbow Warriors performance last season, the 2015 Boston College defense was one of the best in the country. Moreover their secondary ranked sixth nationally in pass defense, only allowing a minuscule 171.5 pass yards per contest.

Let’s take a look at last year’s key defensive statistics and take a shot a predicting what the 2016 Rainbow Warriors defense will look like against Cal:

The Hawaii Defensive Line

At the conclusion of 2015, Hawaii ranked around 100th in college football across many key defensive statistical categories. The lack of depth and size on the Hawaii defensive front could open up a lot of opportunity for Cal if running backs Tre Watson, Vic Enwere and Khalfani Muhammed are able to find running lanes early. Cal’s offensive line, the most experienced unit for the Bears this year, should be able to overpower Hawaii given their massive size advantage as a power five school.

The biggest difference for Hawaii comes in the form of the new scheme that Kevin Lempa will hope to implement to stifle the Bears vaunted offensive attack. If Hawaii can return a few key players from injury on the defensive line, they might be able to force Cal to be more one dimensional than Jake Spavital would prefer. When you factor in the opportunistic style of Lempa’s previous defenses, turnovers could end up playing a crucial role in helping decide just how close, or not close, this game becomes.

The Hawaii Secondary

Hawaii’s secondary returns a decent amount of experience, but lacks depth, which as Cal fans know can severely impact your ability to slow down more physical opponents. An optimistic Hawaii fan can look at the returning roster and make a good case that with the new coaching staff, the secondary can make a bigger leap than perhaps the other two defensive units. Given the past success Lempa has displayed in nearly all of his stops coaching the secondary, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see Hawaii come away with at least a couple of interceptions Friday night.

Above all else, Hawaii will need to show very early in the football game that they have the speed outside to slow down Cal’s newly minted offensive weapons, Melquise Stovall and Demetris Robertson. If the Hawaii defensive backs can’t slow down the bubble screen, Cal should have no issues passing the ball and utilizing their strength as well as their size on the outside to create running lanes downfield. Furthermore, if Hawaii struggles to keep Cal at bay on the underneath plays, Vic, Tre and Khalfani will find progressively bigger lanes to run through as the night eases on.

Friday Night Lights Prediction

Unlike the offensive side of the ball, Cal will have a much better time preparing for Hawaii’s defensive scheme. Lempa is in his 43rd year as a coach and has already served as a defensive coordinator at multiple schools. In what should be good news for Cal, the Bears can expect fewer surprises from Hawaii’s defensive staff than perhaps that of their offensive personnel. The Bears should anticipate a much more opportunistic style of defense, one that aligns more with what they experienced with Arizona State last year. The run defense figures to be the unit most ripe for the Bears to exploit and those Cal fans eager to see the balanced run approach that Jake Spavital brings won’t have to wait long to see it first hand. Don’t be shocked if Cal puts up a sizable yardage total against a vulnerable Hawaii defense, both through the air and on the ground this Friday.