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Sunday, March 27, 2005



WARRIOR FOOTBALL


art
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Jeff Rhode enters his senior season at UH with a chance to vie for the starting QB job.


Patient Rhode
takes final shot

The senior QB has stuck it out
and has a chance to take over
for Tim Chang

Jeff Rhode just can't take a hint.

Springing ahead

Hawaii's spring practices at the UH grass field are open to the public, 7-9 a.m.

Dates: March 29, 30, 31, April 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 13, 14, 18, 20, 21, 22.

Photo day: On April 16 at 10 a.m. at the UH soccer field, there will be a photo day for fans with selected players available for pictures and autographs. There will also be giveaways, contests and information about football season tickets. Admission is free.

On Good Friday/Kuhio Day, during spring break, the University of Hawaii's lower campus was a ghost town. The Warriors' practice fields were officially closed. But it was four days before the start of spring practice, so it didn't stop Rhode, a senior quarterback, and seven receivers, mostly walk-ons, from their daily workout.

"It's not very high," said the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Rhode, laughing and pointing at the 8-foot-high chain link barrier he and the others scaled with ease.

Whoever locked up the fields should've known better. And it's doubtful a slick cement wall topped by razor wire would've been any more effective. It hasn't been determined yet what it takes to get Rhode to lose interest and wander away, maybe back home to Eugene, Ore.

Rhode and Ryan Stickler, another backup quarterback, were told after spring practice last year to not show up for preseason camp in August ... a big hint that they weren't being considered for future roles as starters or key backups.

Stickler, who had three years of eligibility remaining, chose to move to running back. A position change for Rhode, with two years left, would have been a dubious venture. "I don't know what else I could play," he said at the time. Transferring to another school wasn't much of an option, either. Besides, he liked school and was more than halfway to his degree (education diploma ETA: spring 2006), and he liked being a Warrior.

Coach June Jones made it clear he was still a valued member of the team, and Rhode didn't need to be around for fall camp because he already knew the offense, and the coaches knew his capabilities.

It was the last part that caught Rhode like a punch to the gut. He had hoped to impress Jones and quarterbacks coach Dan Morrison in August and battle for the backup quarterback position behind fifth-year starter Tim Chang. Instead, he was told to just show up when school starts and the roster expands.

"That was a huge blow, more than most people realize. It was like, 'You don't have to be here,' but at the same time it kind of hurt, because I wanted to be able to compete," Rhode said. "As a sophomore I came into camp fourth or fifth and worked my way up to three and almost got to play in the UTEP game."

When he did return last year, Rhode hadn't lost his smile and his enthusiasm on the practice field -- although some days it was difficult for him to answer the 6 a.m. alarm.

"I didn't know what to expect, and then I was running the scout team," Rhode said. "When you do work you did as a freshman when you're a (fourth-year) junior, it's very humbling. It was hard to get up every day to do that."

But he did it, and without complaint.


art
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Jeff Rhode was told not to show up for preseason camp last year, an indication he wasn't being considered for a key role.


"He showed a lot of character," Morrison said.

Then a funny thing happened toward the end of the season. True-freshman quarterbacks Taylor Humphrey and Brandon Satcher left the team to transfer and focus on classes, respectively. Rhode moved up the list, to second-string some days.

Then, with Chang nursing a sore back and Jack Rolovich sick before the Hawaii Bowl, Rhode was No. 1 in practice. He'd become a living example of the Woody Allen assertion that 90 percent of life is showing up.

"It was very gradual. I wasn't really asking any questions. I just saw they were letting me do more. No one really said anything. Next thing I knew, I was there," Rhode said. "Every day I'd go to practice not sure I'm getting reps. I just told myself if I get 'em I'm gonna go all out."

This was heady stuff for Rhode, considering he'd played in just one game in his career as a quarterback, throwing one incomplete pass and rushing once for 5 yards.

Then he actually got to play in the Hawaii Bowl victory against Alabama-Birmingham, throwing another incomplete pass.

With the accuracy he threw with Friday in his trespassing workout, it's hard to believe Rhode is 0-for-2 for his career. Nearly every pass was right to the receiver's hands, even the long tosses of 40 and 50 yards downfield.

After an hour, the passes were still on the mark. Only one was uncatchable the entire time.

"As I've gotten older, my arm's gotten stronger. I've got a rubberish arm, I think from being a pitcher before (he was on the UH baseball team in 2002). I've tried to keep the numbers (of throws) down the last couple of weeks," Rhode said. "I also have more confidence in where the guys are going to be. I've been lifting, getting stronger, and that's improved my confidence."

He's also displayed leadership this spring.

"He helps me so much," freshman slotback Davone Bess said. "My first week out here, he said, 'Are you ready? Let's go play catch.' It went from playing catch to running the routes, and he helped give me an edge. It's like having a coach on the field with us."

Jones and Morrison said Rhode starts off even Tuesday with senior Kainoa Akina, sophomore Jack Rolovich and freshmen Tyler Graunke and Inoke Funaki. The coaches might have their private ideas about who will emerge as the starter. But, at least on the surface, it is the first truly open competition for starting quarterback since Chang was a freshman in 2000.

"Observing Timmy all those years is not a bad thing. He's got a pretty good grasp of the offense, and he's a really good kid," Morrison said of Rhode. "He's one who works really hard. He's kind of hoping he can open some eyes this spring and show us he's the guy."

Jones is glad Rhode has stuck it out.

"He's real smart and accurate. There's no reason why he can't get it done," Jones said. "This spring is large for him."

Shawn Withy-Allen's UH experience has many parallels to Rhode's. Both are very religious, and their faith sustained them through the long years of little playing time and little hope of ever getting any. Withy-Allen now plays for an arena football team.

"I still talk to him," Rhode said. "From my first day we connected. He's like another brother. His story is definitely an inspiration to me."

As a senior in 2002, Withy-Allen usually played a series each game to give defenses something different to think about.

"I've kind of adapted to the idea that might be my role," Rhode said. "Of course it's not exactly what I look forward to, but I've been in the offense five years. If I'm not starting, I want to be able to help any way I can. I hope the coaches have the confidence in me to believe I can start or come off the bench to win a game."

Even if he doesn't play this fall, Rhode won't regret his decision to remain a Warrior when no one would've blamed him for leaving.

"I was pretty intent on staying," he said. "Even when I finally got the official letter (instructing him to not attend preseason camp last year). I just wanted to frame it and put it on the wall, so I could remember the feeling and that I never want to feel that again."


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Breaking down the Warriors

A position-by-position look at the UH football team as the Warriors prepare for the start of spring practice Tuesday:

QUARTERBACKS

What to look for: An exciting wide-open competition for the starting spot with the departure of NCAA passing-yardage record-holder Tim Chang. Jack Rolovich has the big arm, Jeff Rhode has the experience in the system, Kainoa Akina has the most Division I experience, and Tyler Graunke and Inoke Funaki have the athleticism.

Sleeper: Funaki was on a religious mission the past two years in the Dominican Republic, where baseball is much more popular than football. He's just a freshman, but the coaches say he has all the physical skills and intangible qualities to thrive as trigger man in the run-and-shoot offense.

Jones says: "They'll all get the same number of reps in the spring."

RUNNING BACKS

What to look for: A committee approach. If Nate Ilaoa is ready to go after shoulder and knee injuries slowed him for three years, he could get a good share of the playing time. Other replacements for the Michael Brewster/West Keli'ikipi tandem will likely come from the group of Kala Latuselu, Bryan Maneafaiga and Ryan Stickler.

Sleeper: Chris Cole was a defensive lineman in high school, and was projected to be a linebacker at UH until someone figured out he might make a good running back. He's still a project, but don't be surprised if he sees action in the fall.

Jones says: "It's one thing knowing how to block. In our system, you must know who to block."

RECEIVERS

What to look for: Again, lots of competition, since none of the six top receivers from last year will be in camp. Since it's unknown if wideout Jason Rivers will be eligible in the fall, the coaches are looking at it as if all four spots are up for grabs. Freshmen Davone Bess and Ryan Grice-Mullen will have a good shot at the starting slotback spots, and Jones hopes Ross Dickerson and Ian Sample can solidify themselves at the wideouts.

Sleeper: Chad Mock outside is athletic and Joey Hew Len inside is big.

Jones says: "(Slotback) Jason Ferguson showed flashes of what he's capable of last fall. He's undersized, but he can play in the big time."

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

What to look for: Although four of five regular starters return, there could be plenty of movement here. Mouse Davis will be the O-line coach until a replacement for Mike Cavanaugh is hired, and the first job is finding a new right guard with the departure of four-year starter Uriah Moenoa. It might be starting right tackle Brandon Eaton, or it might be Jeremy Inferrera, who has started at both tackle spots. Stalwart left guard Samson Satele is out for the spring with shoulder surgery, so we won't know if he supplants three-year starting center Derek Fa'avi until fall camp. Tala Esera is solid at left tackle.

Sleeper: Dane Uperesa has had many opportunities in his first three years at UH, but now appears to be hungry to play more after getting a good taste at the end of last season. How well he settles in as the starting right tackle may determine a lot for the Warriors, since it would allow Eaton to slide in at right guard.

Jones says: "Dane Uperesa has had a tremendous winter. I see a change in his attitude. He knows more of what is expected from him."

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

What to look for: Lots of guys in slings. Tackles Fale Laeli and Clarence Tuioti-Mariner and end Tony Akpan are all coming off shoulder surgeries. Tackle Keala Watson is still awaiting full clearance because of a medical disorder, but will likely be intently watching every practice as he did last fall. Former offensive linemen Larry Sauafea and Michael Lafaele still have a lot to learn about playing defensive tackle, and this is the time to do it.

Sleeper: Karl Noa remains a little slim at 6-4 and 240 pounds, but he's getting stronger and always was quick and athletic. He could work his way into the defensive end rotation, especially on passing downs.

Jones says: "We're a little makeshift this spring. Since we're a little thin, we'll work a lot on our nickel and dime packages.

LINEBACKERS

What to look for: Four freshmen arrive in August who have a chance to start, Jones said, so the incumbents need to shine now. Middle linebacker Ikaika Curnan, the leading tackler in 2003, is out this spring after ankle surgery. Tanuvasa Moe was solid on the weakside when not hurt last fall.

Sleeper: Timo Paepule saw significant playing time as a freshman last year, and will get a long look this spring.

Jones says: "This will be a real interesting spring at linebacker. I'm anxious to see how Khevin Peoples and C.J. Allen-Jones look. They're veterans now, it's their time to shine. Both run like the wind and are as good physically as you get. But you still have to know what to do out there."

DEFENSIVE BACKS

What to look for: Turmarian Moreland and Kenny Patton will have to remain healthy at cornerback since the dropoff is pretty steep. With that in mind, the Warriors will look to develop depth. That's also true at safety, where Lono Manners and Leonard Peters will likely start again. Keao Monteilh, Landon Kafentzis, George Perry, Lamar Broadway and Ryan Keomaka are among those who will make bids for playing time.

Sleeper: A.J. Martinez has returned to the team after a year off because of academics. He is considered a special talent, and could help at corner or safety in the fall if he re-learns the schemes quickly enough this spring and in August.

Jones says: "Turmarian has really worked hard and Kenny is a very special cornerback. Our two safeties, Leonard and Lono, controlled the tempo and the calls well last year."



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