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College football: Run game powering Rainbows

Updated: 
September 28, 2017 - 12:05am

The Hawaii football team’s powerball number is 215.5.

That is how many rushing yards per game the Rainbow Warriors are averaging this season. It is the highest since 1995, when their triple-option offense produced 223.4 rushing yards per game.

“With our personnel set, the run game fits us in terms of our O-line, tight ends and Diocemy (Saint Juste),” offensive coordinator Brian Smith said of the power-run game.

Saint Juste, a fifth-year senior, is eighth nationally with 138.5 rushing yards per game.

“It’s not good enough,” Saint Juste said.

The efficiency of the running game can be traced to an aggressive offensive line, personnel groups composed of restructured role players, and a coaching departure.

In January 2016, Zak Hill resigned after 48 days as UH’s offensive coordinator to accept a similar position at Boise State. Head coach Nick Rolovich hired Craig Stutzmann, a former UH slotback and graduate assistant, as quarterbacks coach and pass-game coordinator. Stutzmann brought along the run-pass option, or RPO, schemes that he ran at Emory &Henry College.

The scheme, at its basics, combines pass routes with running plays out of bunch or spread formations. To create more homework problems for opponents, the Warriors also have run-and-shoot and pistol plays in their offensive menu. In 2010, when Rolovich was UH’s offensive coordinator, he tried to introduce some RPO concepts to the Warriors’ four-wide offense.

“I think we were on to something,” Rolovich said. That UH coaching staff was replaced after the 2011 season. After four years at Nevada, Rolovich was hired as UH head coach in late 2015.

Stutzmann’s version of the RPO “brought a little more stuff down the field,” Rolovich said. “I was intrigued by it. I wasn’t sure how effective it would be without much (personal) history with it. But it’s shown to be a pretty productive part of our offense.”

The offensive linemen’s versatility alternates between run blocking and pass protection. Role players helped create personnel groups and more formations. Kaiwi Chung, a standout offensive lineman in high school, is a lead blocker out of the backfield. Tight ends Metuisela ‘Unga and Dakota Torres are multiple-level blockers. Matt Norman is a backup offensive tackle who aligns as a tight end on power plays.

“Guys are playing in different packages,” Rolovich said. “I don’t know if we’ve taken advantage of all that yet, but I do like that it keeps people dialed in (during games).”

This season, the Warriors are averaging 6.26 yards per first-down rush, up from 5.12 a year ago. That has led to more manageable third-down situations of needing 1 to 3 yards (45.5 percent) for a first down than 10-plus yards (18.2 percent).

“We want to be balanced, and attack what the defense is going to give us,” Smith said. The Warriors are averaging 263.0 passing yards per game.

Rolovich said his stint at Nevada allowed him to become more diverse offensively. “But when you’ve got a guy like (Saint Juste) — and (assistant coach) Chris (Naeole) has been grooming that O-line for a while — if that’s how we’re going to win games, that’s how we’re going to win games,” Rolovich said. “(Saint Juste) is a playmaker.”

Rolovich said he tried to recruit Saint Juste when he was at Nevada and when it appeared he would coach at Temple. “I’m proud of him,” Rolovich said of Saint Juste. “He’s taken not only his physical game but the mental part of the game, his passion for this season, to another level. I’m excited for him.”

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