HONOLULU — Hawaii coach Greg McMackin and defensive coordinator Cal Lee have been coaching football for a combined 78 years at all levels, and yet neither has been handed a challenge like the one they are dealing with this season.
Coming off a 7-7 season, including a one-sided Hawaii Bowl loss to Notre Dame, the Warriors are facing a complete overhaul of their defense.
Gone are 10 starters, including linebacker and co-Western Athletic Conference defensive player of the year Solomon Elimimian. Gone is the defense that kept an inexperienced Hawaii offense in a number of games last season. Gone is a reliable, veteran group that had game experience for practically every situation.
Instead, coming back to the defense is just one full-time starter — senior linebacker John Fonoti — and handful of question marks, though optimism indubitably abounds at this early stage of preseason practices.
"I've never had a team where there's only one guy back with game experience," McMackin said. "But we're practicing very well. They're very hungry to learn. They're picking things up very fast. Their attitude is great. We're really paying attention to the details, and the players are focusing in on that. It's really fun to coach, and the players are really working hard."
The new defense's growing pains were evident last spring.
Vaughn Meatoga, a sophomore who is expected to start this season, seemed disgusted when he recalled that the team's defensive line mustered barely enough sacks to "count them on one hand" throughout spring practice.
In the annual spring game in late April, the offenses combined for 48 points in the first half and recorded three touchdown passes longer than 50 yards.
It was so clearly a defense drowning in unfamiliarity, but it is a problem that has slowly been remedied in the four months since, coach said.
"We didn't have that chemistry," McMackin said of his defense in spring ball. "Everyone was trying to get their own job. I think now in the fall, guys are finding their position, starting to play next to guys and there's more of a teamness and a oneness. For about the last week, they've really come together. We've been getting turnovers. We've been making plays."
Coaches insist the cupboard isn't bare, despite last week's loss of senior linebacker Brashton Satele, who will sit out the season with an injured left shoulder.
Talented returners, especially the linebacking corps of Blaze Soares and R.J. Kiesel-Kauhane, will anchor the new-look defense that will rely heavily on its team speed. Fonoti started all 14 games last season and finished with 62 tackles and 3.5 sacks. McMackin called the 6-foot-2, 290-pound Meatoga the team's "best tackle" last season even though he was a redshirt freshman.
However, the depth chart is still very much unresolved. But at this point in camp, having players fight for positions is not necessarily a bad thing.
"Competition makes great football teams," McMackin said.
So do solid defenses, and the defensive players know that with a veteran offense returning, the weight of the season could ride on their shoulders.
"Coming into this year, our defense is always getting overlooked," Kiesel-Kauhane said. "I think this year we're working hard in establishing ourselves as a defense. ... I feel comfortable with these guys. There are a lot of good players. We've just got to get ready."