CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Senior receiver Jason Rivers needs 597 yards and 40 receptions to take over as Hawaii's career leader in those categories.
Rivers runs through trouble
STORY SUMMARY »
When Hawaii fans last saw Jason Rivers, he was sprinting down the middle of the Aloha Stadium field on his way to a 79-yard touchdown to cap a record-setting performance against Arizona State in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.
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When the 23rd-ranked Warriors open a highly anticipated season on Saturday against Northern Colorado, Rivers, who is closing in on UH's career records for receptions and yards, returns as a senior leader of a prolific receiver corps.
Although he's played in the run-and-shoot offense for most of his football playing life, Rivers doesn't feel like he's seen everything the scheme has to offer just yet.
"Coach (June) Jones is always tweaking it here and there, putting little things in, taking little things out," Rivers said.
"So I'm constantly learning," he added.
Rivers has been a prominent figure in local prep and college sports since his days as a freshman starter on the Saint Louis basketball team. More than seven years later, he's heading into his senior season at UH with a sense of perspective shaped by the ups and downs of his Warrior career, which included a year away from football.
"Before, when I was younger, things like that, the spotlight, tended to get to your head and you forget why you play or why you love the game so much," Rivers said. "Last year and the year I lost, I started to remember that."
FULL STORY »
One thing we know about Jason Rivers.
The guy knows how to finish.
The Star-Bulletin will preview Hawaii's opponents every day until the start of the season. See today's story on B4:
San Jose State
New Mexico State
» He closed his high school football career by helping lead Saint Louis to the 2002 state championship.
» He's capped each of his first three college seasons with superb bowl-game performances.
» On Hawaii's final offensive play of the 2006 season, he took a reception 79 yards for a touchdown to punctuate a record-setting day against Arizona State.
Now, some four years since joining the UH program, Rivers sees another finale approaching with his senior season set to start on Saturday.
If he can provide a similar finishing flourish to his college career, he'll leave the program as one of the most productive receivers in UH history.
Rivers enters the season sixth on the school's all-time receiving-yardage list with 2,745 and needs 597 more to jump past Ashley Lelie into first. His 200 career receptions put him 40 away from breaking Chad Owens' career record.
But the statistical achievements weren't what drew Rivers back when it appeared his UH career was in jeopardy two years ago, or when he let a fleeting notion about jumping to the NFL remain just that.
"The more special thing to me is being a part of this team, not so much the records," Rivers said. "The records are good to have, but the time shared, the time spent with teammates is something I'll remember more than the records."
Rivers represents a bridge between the Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan eras in Hawaii football history, a common figure in the record runs of the storied UH quarterbacks.
During his sophomore season in 2004, Rivers latched onto a 7-yard touchdown pass against Louisiana Tech that made Chang the NCAA's all-time passing-yardage leader. A little more than two years later, Rivers' first score in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl against Arizona State gave Brennan a tie for the NCAA single-season touchdown mark. The final connection between the duo in a 41-24 win set the new standard at 58.
But in the intervening period between Chang's departure and Brennan's arrival, Rivers' path hit a dam.
Academic problems and a broken ankle suffered in an offseason accident ended his 2005 season months before the season opener. After going to a community college to get back on track in the classroom and rehabbing his ankle, he worked his way into good standing on the UH's upper and lower campuses.
"When he went through the difficulties a couple of years ago and wasn't able to play, it was like a wake-up call for him," UH coach June Jones said.
"In life, in general, when you get those second opportunities you'd better take advantage of them, and Jason has fully done that."
Rivers said he never doubted he'd find his way back. And with his focus reset, he finished second on the team in receptions (72), yards (1,178) and touchdowns (10) on his way to second-team All-Western Athletic Conference honors in his junior season.
"It helped me to appreciate being here," Rivers said of his year off. "Coach Jones talks all the time about it being a privilege being here and I took it for granted. Losing that year, not playing, that was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.
"Once I lost it, that's when I figured out how much it meant to me. I wasn't going to give up, I was going to try my hardest to get back."
Rivers' return added a dimension to an offense that showed flashes of its potential in 2005 and reached record heights last year.
"I had heard a lot about him and I watched him on film and realized how much we would benefit if he got out here," Brennan said. "He took our outside threat to a new level, and with all the attention Ryan (Grice-Mullins) and Davone (Bess) get on the inside, when everybody tries to shut them down, they leave him with one-on-one coverage."
Rivers and Brennan took advantage of Arizona State's decision to follow that strategy in the Hawaii Bowl when they connected 14 times for 308 yards, an NCAA bowl game and UH single-game record for receiving yards.
Following the game, Rivers said he gave a "brief thought" to jumping to the NFL, but decided to return to finish his UH career.
"Once you're gone, you're gone. You can't come back," he said. "It was worth it to come back to experience the same thing I had last year."
When Rivers does make his push for the NFL, Jones said his physical style of play as a receiver will work in his favor when scouts evaluate his tapes. Rivers is a tenacious downfield blocker and, "he can make you miss like a little guy, but if he wants to run over you, he'll run over you," Jones said.
Along with the yards and scores, one of Rivers' 2006 highlights was plowing over a defensive back to lead Ian Sample into the end zone for the winning touchdown against Purdue.
"Oh my goodness, let me tell you, that felt just as good as scoring the touchdown," he said. "I'm sure everyone feels that way, because if everybody doesn't contribute on that single play we might not have won that game."
With the Warriors gearing up for perhaps the most anticipated season in the program's history, Rivers is looking for a strong finish to his college football career while also approaching another notable conclusion -- he's on track to earn his political science degree.
"His freshman and sophomore years you wouldn't have guessed that would even be in the picture," Jones said. "But he's committed himself, he's going to get his degree and he's playing football at a really high level right now."