Warriors focus attention on special teams
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Much of the credit for Hawaii topping the nation in scoring is justifiably bestowed on an offense that generates points in bunches.
But the Warrior defense and kick return units have helped keep them at the top of the list with nine touchdowns. Those 63 points (including the PATs) represent the spread (and then some) between UH's 415 points and No. 2 Oklahoma's 356.
The NCAA doesn't have an official listing for defensive touchdowns, but according to an informal national survey by the Wake Forest sports information department, the Warriors -- who have returned five interceptions and four kicks for scores -- and Demon Deacons are tied for the national lead in defense/special teams TDs.
The Warriors, 14th in the latest Bowl Championship Series rankings, devoted more time to special teams during their bye week in preparation for a four-game stretch run that includes games against two of the Western Athletic Conference's top special teams units in Fresno State and Boise State.
"Fresno's the best defense I've looked at so far, technically and physically," UH head coach June Jones said, "and their special teams are probably the best in the country along with Boise."
The Warriors (8-0, 5-0 WAC) have the weekend off and resume practice Monday morning.
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With Hawaii's ascent in the national polls, the spotlight is inevitably drawn to the Warrior headliners on offense and defense.
But the Warriors' hopes of maintaining the nation's longest winning streak and claming a Western Athletic Conference title could hinge on the play of UH's special teams.
"Two of the next four weeks, we'll play two of the best special teams (units) in the country," UH coach June Jones said in reference to games with Fresno State and Boise State, both noted for their prowess in the kicking game.
The Warriors devoted a sizable portion of their final practice of their bye week to special teams, concentrating on assignments and technique in punt coverage and kickoff returns yesterday morning.
They'll take the rest of the weekend off and return to practice Monday in advance of a four-game stretch run starting with next Saturday's home matchup with Fresno State. Following a road game at Nevada on Nov. 16, UH closes the schedule against defending WAC champion Boise State (Nov. 23) and Washington (Dec. 1).
"We know those three (WAC) teams pride themselves on special teams and they're really aggressive," said Guyton Galdeira, a regular on UH's special teams units. "There isn't any room for error at all."
UH has scored four touchdowns this season on kickoff and punt returns, while allowing two scores.
Fresno State entered the week seventh in the nation in punt returns, led by Clifton Smith's average of 16.06 yards per return and two touchdowns. UH's losses to Boise State the past two years included momentum-turning plays in the kicking game.
"(The Broncos) blocked our field goals the last two years -- those were really big plays," Galdeira said. "You look at our Oregon State game (a 35-32 loss last season), they had a kick return (for a touchdown) on us. We had stuffed everybody all year and one play was probably the factor in that game. We're concentrating on our responsibilities and making sure we execute every single time. ... We pride ourselves and really take it personal."
The bye week gave the coaches a chance to look for a replacement for senior Rustin Saole as well. He is part of the special teams core and is out with a strained ligament in his knee.
The numbers show Erik Robinson's statistical contributions this season consisting of one kickoff return for no yards. The junior safety from Dallas is hoping to change that soon.
After having to sit out the first three games due to an eligibility review, Robinson has been easing his way into the rotation in the secondary. Now with starting free safety Keao Monteilh out for the remainder of the regular season with a fractured scapula, Robinson may soon get his chance to make an impact.
Robinson got his most extensive playing time of the season in last week's win over New Mexico State and is running with the second unit alongside Dane Porlas in the Warriors' base and nickel formations.
"I feel real comfortable (in the UH system) because as you get more repetitions at something you start getting comfortable. I used to be kind of nervous, but now I'm more relaxed and laid back.
"I was ready to get out there and prove myself (against NMSU). I was hungry, just ready to just hit somebody."
While Robinson is working his way up the depth chart, Desmond Thomas has taken Monteilh's place with the first team.
"We've been fortunate in that if anybody has gotten hurt the next guy has stepped up," defensive coordinator Greg McMackin said. "Tyler (Graunke) stepped up. Brad Kalilimoku stepped up. Keala Watson stepped up when Mike (Lafaele) was hurt, and Desmond has already started to take charge back there. And then Erik and Dane Porlas really looked good today."
All of the questions from the media regarding UH's place in the rankings have yet to distract Jones from his season-long mantra of "one game at a time."
But with a bye leading into a tough four-game stretch, the Warriors coaching staff did take some time to look beyond next Saturday's game against Fresno State. McMackin used the week off to introduce some of the game plan for the Nov. 16 game at Nevada.
"We practiced most of the time against Fresno, but we did spend some time practicing against Reno," McMackin said. "They run a unique offense, so we wanted to get into it a little bit."
Getting an early jump on preparing for the "Pistol" will help make up for a short week leading up to UH's last road game of the regular season, a Friday night contest in Reno to air on ESPN2.
A segment featuring UH quarterback Colt Brennan is scheduled to air on ESPN's College GameDay tomorrow at 5:15 a.m.
The segment will include a feature piece on Brennan and a live phone interview.
Also, Brennan finished second in the voting for this week's AT&T ESPN Player of the Week voting. Texas running back Jamaal Charles won the award.