Rod York is as hungry as ever as a coach.
York simply loves to build. He and his staff lifted Mililani into a state-championship program (twice). To improve the team’s future, he and his staff started the Mill Vill JPS program for middle-school players.
His players arrive at the high school with a grasp of the terminology, fundamentals and expectations. They have a certain level of freedom within the intricate system of the Trojans, but discipline is meted out when necessary. York, who once played for the University of Hawaii, still looks like he could play defensive tackle at that level. But he has evolved in his years as a coach, and his mind for offensive tactics and machinery is matched only by a few over the past decade.
Mililani is ranked No. 4 in the Star-Advertiser Football Top 10. The Trojans are 5-2 overall and 3-0 in OIA Open play with a showdown at No. 2 Kahuku on Saturday.
York chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Monday, just two days after Mililani quarterback Dillon Gabriel surpassed Saint Louis greats Tua Tagovailoa and Timmy Chang on the all-time passing yardage list.
HPW: What do you remember about seeing Dillon throw the ball for the first time?
York: Eighth grade, we had our Mill Vill tryouts and he showed up. The thing about it is he could already throw the ball pretty good. His mechanics were good. His dad (former UH quarterback Garrett Gabriel) had taught him, but he didn’t know where to throw the ball. He had to learn the reads.
HPW: He was already on the varsity at Mililani one year later, so it didn’t take him much time then.
York: I didn’t have to teach him too much. He kind of knew it. With most new quarterbacks, we have to start from scratch and show them how to throw the ball. Joel Lane is my guy. He’ll private tutor McKenzie Milton (now a Heisman Trophy candidate at UCF). When McKenzie was a freshman going into his sophomore year, that’s when he started working with Joel Lane. I didn’t have to take Dillon to Joel Lane. He could operate a lot of our offense. In our (JPS) league, it’s always Ewa Beach and Laie Park because they’re so athletic and big. But Taulia (Tagovailoa) was the starting QB for Ewa Beach Sabers, Sol-Jay (Maiava) at Late Park and Dillon with Mill Vill. JPS is the best league for development.
HPW: Year-round football, year-round training and reps.
York: Yes. So Dillon comes in and our offense, just like our varsity, we run it on our eighth grade team. We throw the ball all over the place. So did Ewa Beach and Laie Park, that’s why the brand of football is so good. And his football IQ is so high. It made things so much easier. On top of that he is such a humble kid. He puts in the work. If I ask him to watch film, he’ll ask when and where. He used to come to my house, and eventually, we do film at his house.
HPW: Studying film is huge. Going back to the 1990s and ‘80s, it was VHS, and before than 8-millimeter.
York: Ron Lee was probably doing all the film watching in the 1970s.
HPW: So Dillon is an avid student of the game from the start. Then he fills in as a freshman when McKenzie gets hurt against Kailua. A few games later, Dillon gets hurt, shoulder injury like Kenzie.
York: I wish he didn’t get hurt. I had full confidence in him. He could throw all the throws, the speed out, the most difficult, over the middle backers, under the safeties. If you can make those two throws, you can make any throw. You’re one hell of a quarterback. The games he played, he did well. He played in crunch time.
HPW: Learning what you had already built into the playbook as a freshman, that’s insane.
York: Our RPOs are real simple. ‘Iolani has some fancy ones, but we run the basic ones. Some teams, it’s not an RPO, it’s a play-action. We do an actual read.
HPW: I saw a college QB on TV, the game between UCF and Florida Atlantic, just blindly throw the ball into double coverage off a fake to the running back. I don’t think he actually did a read. Just guessing. But your QBs and a lot of the QBs in Hawaii high school football are executing at that level.
York: In our offense, I’m pretty sure everyone’s like that, our QBs really believe in the reads. It’s a game that we play with the defense. If we’re reading backer to corner, they both back up, we throw the arrow. We throw underneath. That’s a simple read right there. We tell the QBs, it’s a like a video game. If you get good at this video game, you’ll be one hell of a QB. Dillon believes in the reads, he knows them in and out, but sometimes when you’re good, you try squeezing balls where you shouldn’t. And against Punahou I called some bad plays.
HPW: That was the game after Mililani returned from California, the loss to No. 1-ranked St. John Bosco. That wasn’t an easy turnaround even with a bye week.
York: No, it wasn’t that. Sometimes, an OC (offensive coordinator) and QBs’ kryptonite is we get greedy. The whole thing is to stay with the reads, the four progressions. That’s the thing with Dillon and all our QBs, you have to (see) front sides and you go back side, 3/4. I learned this through Timmy Chang and Joel Lane, then Craig Stutzmann. I’ve coached with Nolan Tokuda and Darnell Arceneaux. I didn’t take schemes from them, but I learned a lot from them what to do what not to do.
Then the schemes, from Timmy and my neighbor and one of my best friends, Joel Lane. The guru is Ron Lee. That’s where it all stems from. Ron’s the most humble guy and he’s taught everybody including us, and tweaked it to what fits Mililani. The other thing is being result-oriented. When Ron Lee was there, Saint Louis was winning games. When he wasn’t there, Saint Louis went down. They were talking about disbanding Saint Louis. When Ron and Cal came back, look what they’re doing.
HPW: Every OC has his own style and belief. You’ve borrowed a lot of concepts and made a system that’s your own.
York: What makes us different is I’m calling hopefully the perfect play. UH knows if they play cover-1, we’ll run the route this way, and if its cover-2, we go this way. To save us time, we will tweak it to certain coverages, but I’m calling the perfect play.
HPW: Against Waianae, Dillon said you let him call plays at the start, and when it wasn’t working, you took over.
York: I let Dillon have fun with it, and then I called plays to beat the coverage. You use motion to change what it looks like, but it’s the same play. Dillon has definitely mastered it. He understands where the ball should go. That’s why he’s the all-time passing leader. You look at his percentage, it’s up there.
HPW: The common denominator is see is that Dillon is always interested in honing and improving, and he said you’ve taught the team that there is no individual success, only team success.
York: We’ve learned a lot from the Punahou game. We got greedy and tried to force things. That’s what Punahou does rushing with three or four and let you have underneath. There was nothing about talent or smarts, it was more about our attitude, he and I were greedy. I tried to force routes, so we learned a lot and regrouped. Sometimes it takes a butt whipping to wake you up from being complacent. We came back with a good game against Campbell, and played well against Waianae. Now we have the ultimate test playing at Kahuku.
HPW: I always think of what you and your staff have done offensively as a living laboratory. You always note that it begins at home.
York: His parents are so supportive, just like the Miltons. They’re so involved but they let me coach him. Same with Dillon. Dori and Garrett are the same way. Sometimes me and Dillon go at it, at the end of the day, I’m the coach and he’s the player and that’s the only way it goes. But we work together, he suggests stuff and I say run it.
HPW: On paper, it’s not common for a defensive lineman to become an offensive-thinking mastermind.
York: The feel of the game, I played nose guard. I see it from the defensive point of view. That’s what helps me. I can read your cards before we run the play. I understand what they’re trying to do, understand the coverage. When we played Kapolei and Taulia was the QB and June Jones was the OC, that film, I watched almost every week. I always go back to that film because I knew June Jones was good, you hear all kinds of stuff, but they whooped us at our homecoming. I learned from JJ all you have to be is accurate and have the timing right, and you can get anything you want. That’s what they did to us.
HPW: Anything specific?
York: We ran kick to the trips side and they still threw deep because we had poor technique. We have run and shoot, Stanford ground and pound, added the RPOs from ‘Iolani, RPOs from Craig, and now we’ve added some precise route running and accuracy from the QB, from June Jones. We’ve learned how to take advantage. Dillon understands that.
HPW: I asked Dillon who has the best hands and he said Maka Hill.
York: Maka, when he catches it, it’s clean, he doesn’t bobble it. And he can snag it out of the air with a DB on him.
HPW: Dillon committed to Army. I can see him running that version of the flexbone, but I still wonder if Army would tweak the offense for him. Dillon always wanted a chance to play for Hawaii, but he turned them down.
York: McKenzie, I didn’t know he was going to be that good, that fast. I knew he would be one of the best QBs, but I wanted him to do it at UH. Look at UH’s game against Duquesne, (former Mililani standout) Dayton Furuta was the star of the game. That kid is now a statewide name and all the Hawaii fans around the world know him now. This will open doors he hasn’t known once he graduates. Somehow, someway I hope Dillon goes to UH. He would spark that offense.
HPW: Is your offseason filled with games coaching Mill Vill? Or do you get a little break?
York: Mill Vill, we have a head coach. I’m hardly at practice, but I’ll go to the games. We have 44 kids and 43 out of the 44 go to Mililani (middle school).
HPW: Well, I have this crazy vision of Army giving you a call and asking about your offensive packages. Maybe asking if you’d be interested in coaching there. But you seem quite content with life as it is.
York: The kids spend more time in school and sports more than the rest of their lives. Parents want to be able to trust their coaches. For me, this is my life.