DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Four freshmen are expected to start for Hawaii against Boise State tomorrow at Aloha Stadium: receiver Mike Washington, left, slotback Davone Bess, linebacker Solomon Elimimian and place-kicker Dan Kelly.
Getting a fresh start
Hawaii coach June Jones will start four true freshmen in tomorrow’s game, and he expects more first-year players will contribute
Solomon Elimimian looked bewildered on the first day of camp. Dan Kelly was so nervous he couldn't kick straight. Mike Washington slipped and fell untouched at an Aloha Stadium scrimmage. Davone Bess dropped a pass that might have gone for a touchdown in his first college game against USC.
Hawaii vs. Boise State at Aloha Stadium
Kickoff: 6:05 p.m.
TV: PPV, Dig. 255
Yes, there were times when you looked at each of them, shook your head, and muttered, "rookie."
But the four true freshmen expected to start for Hawaii against Boise State tomorrow are on the fast track to veteran status. Those awkward and ineffective times become rarer with each passing quarter. That's why they're playing.
They all performed steadily and successfully in the Warriors' 24-0 victory at Idaho last week.
Elimimian started at linebacker and intercepted a pass. Kelly drilled a 44-yard field goal. Washington replaced injured Ian Sample and caught seven passes for 46 yards. And Bess lived up to his preseason hype with 10 catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
Coach June Jones said he can't remember being involved with any NFL team that started four rookies, or any previous college team that started four true freshmen.
More will probably start as the season progresses. Linebackers Adam Leonard and Brashton Satele, slotback Aaron Bain and receiver Adam Linwood could also see significant action tomorrow, Jones said.
Safeties Kirk Alexander, Erik Pederson and B.J. Fruean, defensive tackle Rocky Savaiigaea, running back Mario Cox, outside linebacker Fetaiagogo Fonoti and defensive end Jake Ingram are other true freshmen who have had at least a taste of playing time and are hungry for more.
"We're not going to put them in there unless they know what they're doing," Jones said. "Adam Leonard knows what he's doing, Solomon's one of the smartest kids we have. If they don't know what they're doing, I'll just use them in what they know. Like Mario played last week, only the things I knew he knew, you know? That's kind of what we've got to do."
The influx of new Warriors taking the field just a few months out of high school is not completely unexpected. After last season, six offensive starters and many of their backups completed their eligibility. On defense, new coordinator Jerry Glanville didn't guarantee job security to veteran holdovers from the 117th-ranked unit in the country.
The good fortune of opportunity doesn't matter if it isn't met with talent, Jones said.
"A lot of it is the quality of the speed in some of the positions for the incoming freshmen," Jones said. "You look at them and if they're good enough you try to get them on the field. This year we really have a lot of good team speed.
"Every game they're getting better," Jones said of those who have played extensively. "Davone is getting more confident. Solomon did a lot of things in the (Idaho) game that are like a guy in the NFL. You tell him something during the game, and he can do it."
Still, the freshman starters are somewhat pleasantly surprised at their number of downs, if not the early successes they've enjoyed. It's one thing for a coach to dangle early playing time as a recruiting enticement and quite another for him to deliver.
"This freshman class, someday we're going to be respectable," Washington said. "But right now it's a shock to me that we have so many true freshmen stepping up and playing. That means we've got good people and in the future we'll be worth your while."
But the future is now, especially in the case of Bess. After the Idaho performance, he is UH's leading receiver, with 20 catches for 194 yards and three touchdowns.
"Coming in I thought I had an opportunity to play, but I didn't know I would start and play so much. I'm kind of glad I'm getting this chance as a freshman, because in the later years it will be second nature," Bess said. "We're a young team. I think we're going to be really good in the future."
Elimimian's adjustment might have been the smoothest. He found his way quickly after the first day.
"The coaches have been real supportive to us. They want us to play, they want us to learn the system. Football doesn't change, the only thing that changes is the speed, and guys are bigger. But if you stay focused you can get out there," said the brother of former UH standout cornerback Abraham Elimimian. "That was a big reason for me to come here. Plus this was the place most comfortable to me. And the scheme was great. I played 3-4 in high school."
Even with so many of them making significant contributions, it's important for the first-year Warriors to remember they don't know it all, Kelly said.
"A lot of the rookies, we know what our spot, what our role is here. All of us still have learning to do, but the majority of the freshmen have really grasped things," he said.
That doesn't mean they're intimidated in any way -- even the kicker. On his recruiting visit, Kelly stood his ground when another prospect cracked wise in his direction.
"He made a comment that kickers aren't athletes. I said, 'Maybe we can't run as far, but try to kick a field goal.' He made a big deal out of it," Kelly said. "I guess he took it a little personal when I said he wouldn't be able to kick a field goal."
The other prospect isn't at UH now, while Kelly is the Warriors' second-leading scorer three games into his career. He and Bess have combined for 29 of Hawaii's 55 points.