JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dennis McKnight first served as a coach on Hawaii's staff in 1999 but is back as a graduate assistant this season.
Love of the game
Dennis McKnight is a coach, student and a big fan of Hawaii's football players
HE has a lot in common with them. He goes to classes. He rides a bike. Like some, he is far from home and misses his family.
He has a full schedule.
"Let's hurry up," he said after practice yesterday. "I've got a big paper to write."
Dennis McKnight is a student, too.
But it is clear he is in charge of the Hawaii football offensive linemen and special team players he coaches. Loud and clear.
He praises and he chastises in appropriate proportions ... but he does it all at full volume and in a vocabulary ranging from salty sailorese to candidate for doctorate dialect.
"He doesn't mean any of it personally," kicker Dan Kelly said. "It's just hard criticism. You just have to know how to take it."
Technically, McKnight, who turned 47 last week, is just a graduate assistant.
That's usually a job for a former player who recently completed his college career. But McKnight is 10 NFL seasons --plus previous coaching stints at UH (as full-time special teams coach and offensive line assistant), Grossmont College and San Diego State -- removed from his playing days at Drake University.
Graduate assistant was the only slot available, as it was when the similarly overqualified Jeff Reinebold (now defensive line coach) accepted a GA post last year.
Why is McKnight here -- away from his family and business in San Diego -- for very little pay?
"I just love these kids, I love June," said McKnight, referring to UH head
coach June Jones. McKnight served on Jones' first Hawaii staff in 1999 and 2000.
McKnight -- fearsome-looking himself with a shaved head, mustache, undersized T-shirt and outsized physique -- said the Warriors have an undeserved image because of the players' appearance.
"There's a bad misconception about the kids here. The long hair, the tattoos, (people think) they're undisciplined, they're wild. The kids here are the kindest, gentlest, enjoying-life people that I've been around," McKnight said in his bellowing voice. "And I think there's a bad misconception, the Boise people toward us, the Fresno people toward us. They think we're like fricking Raider people. We're so far from that it's not even funny. But that's the perception because they look at our exterior. They don't know our interior."
Mouse Davis is the special teams coordinator. McKnight, Rich Miano, Wes Suan and Reinebold split up the coaching.
McKnight is the one who wasn't here last year. His main areas of responsibility, kickoff and kickoff return, have improved significantly. UH leads the WAC with 24.8 yards per runback. As for the offensive line, it helped generate 583 yards in Saturday's 42-13 win over UNLV.
"He's made an impact," Jones said.
"He's done a great job for us," Davis said. "He's full of piss and vinegar. He does a good (technical) job, and he's volatile, so he does a good job with the kids. I think that carries over to everything."
McKnight and Miano enjoyed long NFL tenures because they played special teams.
"Really, that extended their careers. Dennis became primarily a snapper and Rich became primarily a special teams guy, like what happens with defensive backs a lot," Davis said. "If you're going to stay very long in the league and you aren't the starter, you will be a special teams guy or you will be gone."
Sophomore safety Desmond Thomas wasn't going to get cut this summer, but he also wasn't going to make it onto the playing field as a safety anytime soon. So Thomas focused on becoming a valuable special teams player.
Thomas, a converted receiver who was not involved with the kicking game at all last year, captained the special teams for the opener at Alabama and blocked a point-after attempt against UNLV.
"I don't think he was on anybody's depth chart," McKnight said. "He realized he maybe wasn't going to play much at DB and said 'Where can I play?' He went out and worked hard and now he's an integral part of our team."
Thomas credited teammate David Veikune for paving the way on the block.
"The real key was Veikune. He pulled the tackle's arm down, and it gave me an easier hole to go through and make a play on the ball," Thomas said. "It was a pretty good team effort by David Veikune. He helped me out with that one."
The UH special teams suffered a horrific night against Boise State last year, and they were the reason the Broncos won 44-41. Two kicks were blocked, two were returned for scores, and the Warriors allowed a drop by Broncos punter Kyle Stringer to turn into a first down that led to a score.
Davis acknowledges that Boise State plays excellent special teams, but also said last year's problems were mostly self-inflicted.
"We didn't do a good job on the punt, we didn't cover well. On the blocks we didn't do a good job of blocking and we didn't get the kicks up. So the combination of those things hurt us. We've got to take those out of our game plan this year, that's for sure."
Kelly, a true freshman last season, has worked on elevating his kicks and his resolve.
"I might as well have put a big fat bow on it," said Kelly, who has made his one field goal and eight points-after this season. "No early Christmas presents this year."
McKnight said special teams play is why Boise State and Fresno State have been atop the WAC since the turn of the century.
"They play great, they take pride in it. It's their DNA," McKnight said. "They find ways to win. Last year they won the game because their special teams played great."
Thomas said McKnight's presence awakened the Hawaii special teams.
"He brings intensity to the meetings. He's loud and people pay attention to him. He's a good teacher. He's loud, but you can go in his office and talk to him," Thomas said. "I believe we got a bunch of guys who are buying into what the whole special teams life is about."
And what exactly are the qualifications to play on a special team coached by McKnight?
"A big heart and a scrotum full of testicles."
And with that, Dennis McKnight pedaled away to write his paper.