by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Like much of the WAC and Mountain West, Hawaii athletics are in a period of transition. Although the Warriors have always dreamed of inclusion into the Pac-10 (now 12), that was always about as likely as Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly becoming best buddies. But the WAC, Hawaii’s home base for 32 years, has become even more far-flung than ever, especially after Boise State, and next year Fresno State and Nevada, jumped ship to the MWC. Which became quite problematic for Hawaii, which works with a different set of dynamics than any other school; who else has to travel 2500 miles away to their closest road game, in San Jose? And with the WAC expanding into locales such as San Antonio (UTSA) and San Marcos (Texas State), Texas, on top of excursions to remote outposts such as Utah State (Logan), New Mexico State (Las Cruces) and La Tech (Ruston), the Warriors threatened to break frequent flyer traveler records each season, in all sports. The WAC was suddenly no longer a viable alternative for the athletic program.

Fortunately for the Warriors, their location still makes them an appealing destination spot for opposing teams. After briefly considering going independent in football as did BYU, the school found the Mountain West more than willing to add it as a football-playing member next season, along with Nevada and Fresno State, as well as former WAC heayweight Boise State, which joins the MWC this year. For all other sports, the Warriors will be competing in the Big West, with all of its schools based in California, a literal trip around the block for UH teams used to making two and three airline connections into remote venues in the Mountain and Central Time Zones. Which if nothing else will resolve some budget headaches for AD Jim Donovan, who will no longer have to worry about how his womens softball and mens tennis teams were going to get to Moscow, Idaho or Ruston, Louisiana.

Meanwhile, back on the gridiron, the Warriors are in position to enjoy their one-year hiatus away from Boise State and perhaps leave the WAC as conference champ, as the league’s scribes have predicted in their preseason poll. Of course, Hawaii can be excused about dreaming big, just four years removed from its memorable BCS season in 2007. No one is expecting to see the Warriors in the Fiesta Bowl next January, but another postseason bid (almost assuredly in the hometown Sheraton Hawaii Bowl) seems a given. And further confirmation that the school made the right move when promoting veteran d.c. Greg McMackin to the head coaching position after June Jones skedaddled to the big payday that awaited him at SMU following the BCS Sugar Bowl dream season in ‘07. McMackin has more than kept the Warriors afloat with two hometown bowl bids during his three seasons in charge (matching Jones’ bowl output in his last three years in Honolulu), including a 10-4 mark last season that included a win over conference tri-champ Nevada, the Wolf Pack’s only loss of 2010. (We won’t talk about McMackin’s bowl misadventures, however, lopsided losses at Aloha Stadium against Notre Dame in 2008 and Tulsa last year.) Moreover, McMackin has never tampered with the progressive Red Gun, which remains Hawaii’s trademark and if anything even embellished further since Jones’ departure.

Not having to worry about Boise is just one of the things McMackin and staff are looking forward to this fall. QB Bryant Moniz, a onetime pizza delivery man, returns for his senior season after leading led the nation’s passers with 5040 yards and 39 TDs a year ago, as well as total offense at 367 ypg, and rates as the only experienced starter at QB among other expected WAC contenders Fresno and Nevada. Moniz is merely the latest in an assembly line of Red Gun QBs dating to the June Jones days that also included Nick Rolovich, now McMackin’s offensive coordinator. Indeed, keeping the offense humming in the same style it was under Jones has kept the Warriors relevant the past three years. And the decade-plus running the offense makes McMackin and staff more comfy that they can replace the parts necessary after eight non-Moniz starters graduated from last year’s strike force that ranked sixth overall in total offense at 501 yog and 10th in scoring at 40 ppg.

There are still some big shoes to fill, not the least of which being those of slamming RB Alex Green, who bolted for 1199 YR and 19 TDs in 2010, but remember that former juco Sterling Jackson rushed for 727 yards and 10 TDs as a soph in 2009 before being redshirted a year ago. A frosh redshirt, 245-lb. Pago Pago battering ram Joey Iosefa, is the latest in the downhill-running fleet of Hawaii RBs patented by the bruising, truck-like West Keliikipi a few years ago, while true frosh Will Gregory, a 190-lb. speedburner from Compton (Ca.) Dominguez High, alma mater of the late and great Dennis Johnson, could offer a further change of pace if McMackin and Rolovich don’t decide to redshirt him instead. The Red Gun has also been reloading at the wide receiver spots for over a decade, so the departures of top pass catchers Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares (whose career at Aloha Stadium seemed to stretch back to the days when they Jack Lord was starring in the original Hawaii-Five-O) might not be as debilitating as their combined 207 receptions from last year would suggest. Look for sr. Royce Pollard, who caught 64 passes of his own last year, to step into the breach, while touted 6'4 juco redshirt Darius Bright provides a rare king-sized Red Gun target. Soph slotback Miah Ostrowski, who also appeared out of nowhere for Gib Arnold’s basketball team last winter when it was in need of help at the guard positions, could be the heir apparent to the versatile Pilares.

If there is a concern for the Red Gun, it’s the replacement of four beefy offensive line starters. Keeping the brave Moniz, who takes enough hits in the pocket as he stares down pass rushers in Johnny Unitas-like fashion, from any unnecessary punishment is vital, especially with sr. backup QB Shane Austin having little live-fire experience. Although it’s worth noting that Moniz stayed mostly in tact a year ago despite the OL allowing a hefty 40 sacks.

The unsung heroes from last year’s 10-win team were on defense, where Hawaii excelled in game-changing plays last fall. Show us a team that leads the nation in forced turnovers and we’ll show you a winning side, which is exactly what the Warriors were last year when recording a nation’s best 38 takeaways (23 picks and 15 fumbles). Six starters, including three of the top four tacklers, return this fall, led by flying LB Corey Parades, who led the WAC with a whopping 151 tackles. Incoming juco LB Brenden Daley is a 6'4, 255-lb. destroyer whom many believed was ticketed for the Pac-12 (Oregon, Utah and Washington thought to be among his likely destinations) and might rate as McMackin’s most-impactful newcomer. Along with another tackle machine, sr. LB Aaron Brown, Hawaii’s stop unit should remain capable of more momentum-changing plays, although the leadership and production (8 interceptions) of S Mana Silva might be harder to replace. But a front seven that helped record a healthy 31 sacks in 2010 should remain robust, and it’s worth noting that only a few offenses (Southern Cal, Boise, and Tulsa in the bowl game) moved with much consistency against McMackin’s defense last season.

An interesting addition to the coaching staff is former HC Dick Tomey, who was also the boss once upon a time at Arizona and San Jose State (and, for one memorable year, the TV color analyst for the Warriors), but has maintained a home on the islands since his days coaching the then-called Rainbow Warriors from 1977-86. Between his golf rounds and softball games, Tomey will be cooordinating the special teams, which has McMackin thrilled. “He’ll have those guys jacked up!,” says the head coach.

Note that Hawaii covered 11 of its 13 regular-season games last season, including all seven at home before losing big in the bowl vs. Tulsa. McMackin’s teams have also covered 10 of their last 15 on the mainland, trips that have often been a serious bugaboo for Warrior teams throughout the years.

Summary...Hawaii should provide plenty of entertainment again this season as long as Bryant Moniz stays healthy and keeps winging the ball in the McMackin/Rolovich version of the Red Gun. Most of the right new starters on offense have had ample experience in the past, and with many of the playmakers returning from last year’s surprisingly good defense, the Warriors are unlikely to get overrun, especially vs. a mostly modest set of WAC foes. Hawaii has a chance to gain some attention with opening games vs. Pac-12 Colorado (at Honolulu) and at Washington, before the Rainbows do their annual week-long campout in Las Vegas, this year prior to the game at UNLV on Sept. 17, an affair in which Hawaii will almost have a home-field edge. WAC title hopes likely come down to the back-to-back mid-November games at Nevada and home vs. Fresno State. Whatever the results, expect the Warriors back in the hometown Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, for the seventh time in ten years, on Christmas Eve. And as always, we will be tuning into inimitable play-by-play man Jim Leahey as he describes the action, as only he can, for late-night Saturday satellite TV entertainment throughout the fall.

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