Senior class keeps Rainbow Warriors focused on winning

Nov. 12—The University of Hawaii football team's magic number is 22.

The University of Hawaii football team's magic number is 22.

"We're playing for the (22 ) seniors, " UH coach Timmy Chang said of tonight's penultimate home game of the season. "We're going to lose a bunch of guys after the season. We want to win for those seniors. We're going to do everything possible to win while developing our (less-experienced ) guys."

There are petitions being filed for an extra season, which, if successful, would lower the number of departing seniors to 20. But offensive linemen Ilm Manning, Stephan Bernal-Wendt, Micah Vanterpool and Austin Hopp ; wideout Zion Bowens ; tight end Caleb Phillilps ; defensive linemen Blessman Ta 'ala and John Tuitupou ; linebacker Penei Pavihi, and defensive backs Hugh Nelson II and Leonard Lee are starters preparing for their final three UH games.

Bernal-Wendt and Eliki Tanuvasa have been medically cleared for tonight's Mountain West game against Utah State at the Ching Complex. Bernal-Wendt's return to left guard means Solo Vaipulu can remain on track to return as a sixth-year senior in 2023. An NCAA amendment allows a player to redshirt if he does not appear in more than four games this season. Vaipulu, who has played in three games, earned the top lineman's belt last week after delivering two "nasty " knockdown blocks.

In Tanuvasa's absence, Sergio Muasau and Maurice Ta 'ala have played center.

Wideout Jonah Panoke and slotback Koali Nishigaya also are projected to start tonight after earning medical clearance. Panoke and Nishigaya played in Saint Louis School's run-and-shoot offense, which employs many of the same concepts found in the Rainbow Warriors' four-wide scheme. While mending a broken clavicle, Panoke has tutored the receivers on reading defenses and making post-snap choices based on coverages. Nishigaya, also on the redshirt track, has played in two games.

Safety Meki Pei's recovery from a turf toe gives the Warriors options in the secondary. The Warriors have employed a three-across zone with Peter Manuma, Kaulana Makaula and Lee. Pei and Manuma can reunite in a two-deep coverage. Nickelback Malik Hausman has moved up as a third linebacker when the Warriors slide from a four-man front to a 3-3-5 alignment.

Manuma, running back Tylan Hines and wideouts Chuuky Hines, Nick Cenacle and Alex Perry are among the true freshmen energizing the Warriors' youth movement.

"You've got to keep developing guys, and keep getting guys ready to play, and then taking the next step in making those plays, " Chang said. "You keep harping on it, keep talking about it, keep getting the mental right, and go from there."

During UH's work-heavy practices on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the entire team trains together on the grass field for the first hour. After that, the offense moves to the Ching Complex to work in a more spacious area. It is in the second hour that sophomore quarterback Brayden Schager takes most of the snaps.

"He has to get in a rhythm, " Chang said of Schager. "And the only way to get in a rhythm is to continue throwing and continue getting those reps and those same coverages and seeing what defenses are doing. He'll get better at it. He needs to keep developing. That's why he's getting more of the reps."