Hawaii eyes UMass for Saturday’s season opener

After finishing with three straight wins and the first non-losing season since 2010, the 2017 University of Hawaii football season kicks off this Saturday. The first matchup brings a familiar opponent as the Rainbow Warriors take on the UMass Minutemen (12 p.m. HT). Down the stretch last season, UH needed to win their final regular season game to go on to the Hawaii Bowl with a chance at a .500 season.

That victory came in the form of a 46-40 shootout win over UMass, which preceded the 52-35 Hawaii Bowl win over Middle Tennessee.

The ‘Bows should look very similar to start 2017 as they did to end 2016. Now in year two of Nick Rolovich’s head coaching tenure, Hawaii is bringing back a core group of starters who should continue the upward trajectory of the program.

That all starts with quarterback Dru Brown. Moved into the starting role as a sophomore last season, Brown showed a flair for the dramatic and a confidence in his offensive teammates. He ended the season with 2,488 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

His No. 1 weapon, wide receiver Marcus Kemp, won’t be back this year, but that merely allows Brown to own the spotlight as the leader of his unit. He had fumble issues to correct and decision-making abilities to improve upon, but Brown did much more than was expected last season. Now the expectations will be upped to meet the potential he displayed. Aspiring to meet those expectations becomes his sole responsibility.

Things went exceptionally well the last time Brown saw the UMass defense. He threw for 311 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. The Minutemen will surely make some adjustments to avoid a similar fate this time around.

You would think with that type of aerial production, UMass must have done a decent job limiting the UH ground game. Yeah, not so much. Diocemy Saint Juste ran wild with 122 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries. The senior running back is coming off his first 1,000-yard season and has always possessed loads of talent. Consistency has remained his nemesis, but he ended 2016 on a high note with that outburst against UMass and 170 yards rushing in the Hawaii Bowl.

There’s a lot to be excited about with just those two alone, but the defense is also an interesting mix of vets and youth that could be an effective blend. Rojesterman Farris II and Zach Wilson are projected to be the starting cornerbacks. Farris had a few noticeable moments last year, but Wilson is somewhat of an unknown. They’re an untested duo who will have a lot of responsibility against many of the conference’s pass-happy programs.

But the most important piece will likely be junior Jahlani Tavai, back to man the middle linebacker position. Tavai was a first team All-Mountain West performer and piled up 129 tackles and 7.0 sacks for the season. He’s the rock who forces the flow one way or the other. His emergence last year was not a major surprise, but his reliability became a staple that helped stabilize a team creating its new identity.

Impressive though they are, all these numbers get tossed aside this week. UH became exciting again in 2016, but the only thing that matters is what lies ahead. Year two of the Rolovich era should have some increased, but realistic expectations. It all starts with a very even matchup on paper, but one that might give an indication of just where the ‘Bows reside in the pecking order. We’ll see how that manifests itself on Saturday.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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