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Looking at how the Hawaii and Oregon football teams match up

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During a break in a recent practice, running back Tylan Hines went through a drill … on one leg. The co-captain’s training was symbolic of the agility and balance expected of the UH running backs. Hines, who also can align wide or in the slot, is a blend of speed, jump-cut nimbleness and lower-body strength. Jordan Johnson, who was added to the active list last week after resolving eligibility issues, is a speed back. Nasjzae Bryant-Lelei, who has recovered from a leg ailment, is a power back (7.5 yards on third-and-short carries). Assistant coach Keiki Misipeka describes the group as a Swiss Army Knife. “I tell my guys they have to understand what they bring to the table,” Misipeka said. “It’s different traits and styles that bring a lot of value to the room.” Topping the list is ball security. The Warriors’ lone fumble, which they recovered, came at the end of a post-catch run of an inside screen. “The ball is the program,” Misipeka said. “Ball security is the big emphasis. In our drills, we work on holding the ball at the first and second levels, and making sure (the backs are) locking the wrists and breaking arm tackles.” The Warriors have packages for 10 receivers. Wideout Jalen Walthall, who broke into the rotation last week after not being used in the first two games, is competing with Steven McBride for the most acrobatic receptions. Injuries and inconsistency have led to shuffles on the O-line, which gave up five sacks last week. Arasi Mose, who can play the three interior positions, is a hefty counter punch to Oregon’s imposing defensive line. Mose, whose father and uncle were McKinley stars, prefers the action at guard. “You’re hitting basically every play,” Mose said.


In 1999, then defensive coordinator Greg McMackin created a strategy to improve the overall speed of a unit that went 0-12 the previous season. Corners became safeties; safeties became linebackers, linebackers became d-ends. Twenty-four years later, by design and necessity, 255-pound Ezra Evaimalo is filling gaps as a D-tackle, and Nalu Emerson, a converted safety, enters the lineup as the injury replacement for weak-side linebacker Logan Taylor. Emerson “was a guy who was struggling to find time as a safety,” defensive coordinator Jacob Yoro said of Emerson’s move late last season. “But now as a linebacker, he brings a lot to us.” Emerson has sideline-to-sideline range. When opponents employ extra blockers, Emerson and middle linebacker Isaiah Tufaga will stay put on the inside, while Noah Kema will cover the tight end as the defense reconfigures from a 4-2 to 4-3 front. Nickelback Elijah Palmer is a 5-8, 175-pound freshman but is strong (450-pound back squat) and aggressive. “I’m not the tallest, but if they want to play a physical game, you’ve got to play it,” said Palmer, whose time with national power Bishop Gorman High prepared him for tough competition. Eti Ena, co-defensive coordinator and D-line coach, has implored a goal of QBL — quarterback leverage — in bracketing the pocket and preventing on-the-move throws. D-end Andrew Choi has mastered setting the edge to open a pass-rushing lane for teammates.


Comparisons are being drawn between Steven McBride and Colorado State’s Tory Horton. Both are transfers — McBride from Kansas in January; Horton from Nevada last year — who are fast and sure-handed receivers with quick-cut ability. “He’s long, catches the ball in traffic, you get one cut upfield,” head coach Timmy Chang said of McBride. After filling in for Cam Stone last week, McBride has matched Horton’s burst and purposeful running as a punt returner. Special teams coordinator Thomas Sheffield envisions eventually using McBride and Stone in a two-returner system.


The Ducks’ attack is a mashup of time and space. Set to a no-huddle, rat-a-tat pace, the wideouts often align just outside of the numbers and dash to all branches of the passing tree. The divide-and-conquer approach, further aided by pre-snap motions and shifts, gives multiple options for quarterback Bo Nix, who transferred from Auburn in 2022. If defenders give cushion to Troy Franklin, who can run 40 yards in 4.35 seconds, he can hook his route. Franklin also gets open on swing passes off jet sweeps. Franklin averages 7.8 post-catch yards. Troy transfer Tez Johnson, who was adopted by Nix’s family, is another speedy target on slants and slam-on-the-brakes patterns. Tight end Patrick Herbert — the younger brother of Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert, a Ducks alum — will go across the formation to set up as an edge blocker but, if not covered, will continue into the flats as a check-down receiver. Herbert and tight end Terrance Ferguson have combined for an 11.0 YAC. Nix has completed 76.5% of his passes, an accuracy that is adjusted to 82.5% when discounting five drops. While he is an agile runner — 6.2 yards per non-sack scramble or keeper — Nix leaves the ground work to Bucky Irving (10.5 yards per carry), Jordan James and Dante Dowdell. The run plays are off zone, stretch and counter blocks, but Irving, even at 5-10 and 195 pounds, can get skinny in bursting through creases. The O-line, which has surrendered only one sack in 83 pass plays, offers some twists. Last year, Josh Conerly caught a scoring pass. “It was an out-of-body experience,” said Conerly, who insisted he prefers pancake blocks to receptions. The Ducks average 15 pancakes per game.


The Ducks usually set up with a four-man front (one of the ends is a stand-up edge) and a two-high-safety zone. Safety Bryan Addison — whose namesake father was a standout defensive back on UH’s 1992 Holiday Bowl-winning team — is a middle back who can move into tackle box. (The elder Addison died in 2020.) Evan Williams, who was a Fresno State captain last year, plays the linebacker-safety position known as “star.” Middle linebacker Jeffrey Bassa aligns in the run gaps or as a pass rusher. As a freshman in 2021, Bassa moved from defensive back. Last week against Texas Tech, Bassa made nine tackles and scored on a 45-yard pick-6 with 35 seconds to play. D-line coach Tony Tuioti is a former UH defensive tackle, recruiting coordinator and assistant coach. Popo Aumavae, who missed the 2022 season because of a foot injury, is back as a seventh-year Duck. In 2021, Aumavae was selected to the All-Pac-12 first team. Nose tackle Taki Taimini also is in the rotation. On being a point-of-attack defender, Taimini said: “It’s just a whole lot of guys trying to beat you up while your brothers get to eat. It’s the best part of football.” Before receiving NIL endorsements, Taimini earned extra money working as a shopper for Amazon and driver for DoorDash.


After scoring their first TD of the season, the Ducks converted a 2-point play out of a swinging-gate formation. Special teams coordinator Joe Lorig has been creative during a 27-year coaching career. But Lorig, who joined Oregon last year after three seasons at Penn State, has relied mostly on fast, athletic and physical play with the Ducks. Tez Johnson has the green light on punt returns, even off bouncing kicks. Of the seven punts in his direction, he has returned five, giving the Ducks an average drive start at their 36.

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