CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
New Hawaii assistant coach Ikaika Malloe kept an eye on the defensive linemen at the opening of practice yesterday.
Defense wants to shoulder the load
For once, defense isn't just the "other" side of the ball.
For much of June Jones' tenure as head coach, offense was understandably Hawaii's marquee unit, particularly during quarterback Colt Brennan's ascent to superstar status in Manoa.
But as a new era opened a little after dawn yesterday morning, the Warriors defense began spring practice in the spotlight.
"The defense in previous years has been kind of overlooked because of the high-powered offense," senior defensive tackle Keala Watson said. "But this year will be our year to try to make a statement where we're not just a score-to-win team, but we can actually stop teams."
Hawaii's emphasis on defense seems natural with Greg McMackin succeeding Jones as head coach. But the former defensive coordinator said the shift is based more on personnel than his personal background.
According to the depth chart, the Warriors -- who ranked 34th nationally in total defense last season -- return five starters on that side of the ball. In practical terms, reserves were among UH's most productive performers last year and the Warriors have experience at nearly every spot.
Meanwhile, a UH offense that ranked in the top five nationally in passing in each of Jones' nine seasons is spending the spring piecing together a rebuilding project.
"It's not that we're choosing to go defense over offense," McMackin said yesterday morning after the first of the Warriors' 15 spring sessions. "But that's where our veterans are, so that's our starting point. ... We'll try to take the pressure off the offense."
McMackin hasn't been shy about touting the Warriors' front seven leading up to the spring with All-WAC linebackers Adam Leonard and Solomon Elimimian and hard-hitting junior Blaze Soares returning. The first group on the line yesterday were David Veikune (last year's sack leader), Watson, Joshua Leonard and John Fonoti, all of whom saw extensive action last season.
"The confidence is out of the roof right now," Leonard said. "We lost a lot of starters, but we had a great rotation last year, so we feel we're really deep and it's a matter of fine-tuning our technique. We know the defense now and we can just elaborate on it a little more."
With McMackin's system in place for a full year, he could detect a difference in tempo as the team returned to the field for his second spring since rejoining UH.
"They were so much faster than last year, they knew what they were doing," he said. "We put four blitzes in today and we just had to tighten it up a little bit and make it a little faster. ... We're way ahead of last year."
Said Watson: "Last year it was a lot of thinking about where you have to be, this year it's all reaction."
For all of the familiar faces returning on defense, a few new faces made their on-field debuts, including two coaches as Dave Aranda and Ikaika Malloe put the D-line through a variety of drills. Aranda will work with the ends, with Malloe concentrating on the tackles.
"I missed being on the field and I'm sure the players were excited to get going," said Malloe, a Kamehameha graduate. "I just have to get on board to what Coach McMackin's doing and continue the success they've had.
"We're going to be an attack-style defense. With the tackles, we expect them to penetrate the line of scrimmage get into the heels of the guards and try to cause chaos from there."