If this spring's conversion project goes as well as those of last year, Keith Bhonapha will see lots of playing time in the fall.
Coaches moving Bhonapha around
By Dave Reardon
The Hawaii football coaches moved Chris Brown from defensive line to linebacker and Robert Grant from running back to safety last spring. Both ended up playing key roles in the Warriors' 9-3 season.
Brown hadn't played linebacker since high school and Grant had never played defense. But both excelled at their new positions.
Bhonapha has the advantage of fairly recent experience at the position he is learning now. When he first came to Hawaii four years ago, he was a safety. Three years ago he was moved to cornerback, but now defensive backs coach Rich Miano is working him out at safety again.
There's lots of competition in the secondary, and the three cornerbacks who started (Abraham Elimimian, Hyrum Peters and Kelvin Millhouse) are returning.
But Bhonapha's versatility makes him valuable.
"We're counting on Keith to be kind of a utility guy for us," Miano said. "He knows how to play corner, and he's learning to play safety. He will probably play in nickel and dime (pass defenses) for us, and he's done a great job for us on special teams.
"I'm excited about working with Keith because he has such a great attitude and works so hard and he's going to be a senior," Miano added. "So it's like Robert Grant last year: We've got to find a way to get this guy on the field. He's such a great kid and a leader by example."
Bhonapha, a vocal player, said he enjoys safety because he can help teammates from the middle of the field.
"When you play corner, you mostly zone in on your man," he said. "Having to read the whole field is a little different. But I like it. Being an older guy I can help out the younger guys better from there.
"I'm all for anything that will help get me on the field more."
Bhonapha will be on the field often as a member of the kickoff and punt coverage and return teams. He was a stalwart last year on special teams and figures to be again this fall.
"Him, Sean Butts and some of those guys are still going to play a lot of special teams regardless what their role is on defense," Miano said. "Our philosophy is to try to get the 11 best guys on the field. Keith is an extremely well-conditioned athlete, but if he ends up playing a lot on defense we might take him off one or two teams, but he'll always be on two or three."
Hawaii's improvement on special teams means more players are volunteering for the duty, Miano said.
"Being No. 1 in the nation in kickoff returns, that's something, and guys want to be part of something successful," Miano said. "We preach as a staff that you've got to know your role and your role on special teams is just as important as someone's role on offense or defense. That's one-third of the football game."
Bhonapha doesn't foresee ever quitting special teams.
"That's my bread and butter right there," he said. "Being an older guy I like to show the example of being on special teams. A lot of guys think they just want to get on the field. It's a process. I like it, it's fun. Last year I got to make a couple of plays."
A couple of big plays.
Bhonapha helped Hawaii beat Tulsa with a tackle for a safety on a Golden Hurricane punt attempt.
He also scored a touchdown on a punt blocked by Grant, his former high school teammate at Oakland Skyline. That was one of the biggest plays of the year, as it helped UH beat Southern Methodist on the road; the victory was the turning point of the season.
Bhonapha keeps in touch with Grant, who is back in Oakland preparing for a possible pro career.
"I talked to him yesterday," Bhonapha said at practice Friday. "He told me go watch film and hook up with coach Miano. Get the extra filmwork as much as possible, because my time is winding down pretty fast."
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