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Hawaii Quarterbacks taking the highest levels of college football by storm

Updated: 
November 23, 2017 - 12:05am

They all complete at least 66 percent of their passes and made multiple touchdown throws on Saturday.

Central Florida’s McKenzie Milton, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Mississippi’s Jordan Ta’amu have followed Marcus Mariota’s lead in changing the perception of football players recruited from the islands.

For so long, Hawaii’s imprint on Division I college football has come largely from the trenches.

According to pro-football-reference.com, half of the 106 Hawaii-born players to go on to play in the NFL played on either the offensive or defensive line. Another 20 played linebacker.

Until Mariota’s rise from a shy one-year wonder for Saint Louis to the Heisman Trophy winner at Oregon and second pick in the NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans, only two passes had been completed in the NFL by a player from Hawaii since 1959.

College football has been a bit more kind. Saint Louis produced Jason Gesser (Washington State) and Timmy Chang (Hawaii) in the mid to late 1990’s.

Darnell Arceneaux (Saint Louis) threw for 4,000 yards in four years at Utah from 1997 to 2000 and Bryant Moniz (Leilehua) threw 75 TD passes in his three years at UH from 2009 to 2011.

This era of quarterbacks is something different, however.

At the same time, Hawaii can take responsibility for a starting quarterback in the SEC, a true freshman backup at the No. 1 college football school in the country, and the second-year starter for a 10-0 UCF team that is No. 15 in the current college football playoff rankings.

Milton, who is one of 15 Maxwell Award semifinalists as the best player in college football, took over as UCF’s starter at QB three games into his freshman season and has never looked back.

He won his third American Athletic Conference offensive player of the week award on Monday after throwing for 208 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for another in just three quarters of a 45-19 win over Temple.

It was a rare game for Milton, Hawaii-bred and now attending school in Florida, in the cold weather of Philadelphia in mid-November.

Temperatures dropped into the 30s.

“There was a lot of chitter-chatter about us not being able to play in the cold, but we have to adapt to the elements,” Milton told reporters after setting UCF’s program-record winning streak at 10 games. “I think our team came out juiced.”

The 5-foot-11 sophomore is completing 69.6 percent of his passes, which is second in the nation, for 2,928 yards, and is responsible for 31 touchdowns with only five interceptions thrown.

His time at UCF has come quickly, while Tagovailoa, the reigning Star-Advertiser offensive player of the year, has also seen more playing time than he might have expected.

Tagovailoa, Hawaii’s all-time career passing leader in high school at Saint Louis, has taken the field in all but three of the Crimson Tide’s 11 games.

Despite his role as the clear No. 2 to starter Jalen Hurts, Tagovailoa has thrown eight touchdown passes with only one pick and completed 66 percent of his 53 passing attempts. He’s also rushed for more than 100 yards and two scores.

His three TD passes in a win over Mercer on Saturday were a career high.

“We got a chance to play a lot of players out there today, which I think that experience is probably very, very helpful to their development and their growth and to the depth on our team,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters.

Milton and Tagovailoa were both players of the year in Hawaii and well known heading into this season.

Ta’amu is a different story.

A two-year starter at Division II Pearl City, Ta’amu went to junior college and eventually signed with Ole Miss.

The Rebels had a sophomore starter in Shea Patterson at quarterback and Ta’amu hadn’t even attempted a pass until Patterson suffered a knee injury in the sixth game against LSU.

The 6-foot-2 dual threat was immediately thrust into the spotlight and has responded with 13 touchdowns and more than 1,600 total yards in 4 1/2 games.

Rivalry week will provide an opportunity for at least two of the three to experience an intense atmosphere.

Milton can complete an undefeated regular season but has to beat a 9-1 South Florida team on Friday.

Ta’amu will experience the Egg Bowl for the first time on Thanksgiving night against Mississippi State in Starkville.

He suffered a hit to the throat in the first half of a 31-24 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday after throwing two touchdown passes. Ole Miss only scored three points after the hit, but interim coach Matt Luke said Ta’amu should be fine for Thursday.

“I was a little dizzy at first, but then I felt better and shook it off,” Ta’amu told reporters about the hit.

Alabama plays Auburn in the Iron Bowl on Saturday.

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