Q&A: Moanalua coach Savaii Eselu on Waipahu

Savai'i Eselu was an assistant under Arnold Martinez before taking the head coaching job. Bruce Asato/ Star-Advertiser

Savaii Eselu has a useful imagination.

It’s part of the reason why Moanalua has embraced what it is. Lots of shifty pass catchers? Take the four-wide to the next level. The Moanalua head coach is also a bit wary of what his counterpart, Waipahu head coach Bryson Carvalho, might scheme when the two teams battle tonight in OIA D-I play at Aloha Stadium. Moanalua is unbeaten (6-0, 5-0) and ranked No. 8 in the Star-Advertiser Football Top 10. Waipahu (5-3, 4-1) could rattle things with a victory.

“I’m wondering if he’ll bust out the wishbone. They’ve run it for one series,” Moanalua’s fourth-year head coach said. “Waipahu has big boys. They can run the triple option. Arnold Martinez had us run it when he was here.”

Eselu is admittedly a fan of the Marauders.

“I’m actually from Waipahu. I ended up going to Moanalua in high school. I’ve always been a fan of the black flag. My cousin, Andrew Hale, was the running back for Waipahu and I’ve always been a fan since. Coach Carvalho has brought that strength back for sure. He’s doing a tremendous job,” Eselu said, pondering the possibilities from his counterpart.

The return of Waipahu running back Alfred Failauga from a hand injury is a major boost. The junior is one of Waipahu’s leading playmakers in school history.

2016: 225 carries, 1,259 yards, 12 TD; 22 receptions, 346 yards, 2 TD
2017: 216 carries, 1,495 yards, 21 TD; 6 receptions, 76 yards
2018: 96 carries, 388 yards, 4 TD; 3 receptions, 45 yards

The average per carry dipped significantly this season, so far, as the Marauders adjust to life after quarterback Braden Amorozo and a deep, senior-heavy receiving group that graduated. But Eselu has reason to be concerned about the Marauders.

Eselu chatted about the matchup and the development of Moanalua’s 2018 offensive philosophy with Hawaii Prep World on Wednesday.

HPW: Nick Au might be the most improved QB in the state. He is now at a 66.7-percent completion rate, which is the sweet spot for a run-and-shoot offense. Do the numbers reflect his decision making?

Eselu: It’s definitely reflecting his decision making. Sometimes some breakdowns here and there, but that comes with it throwing the rock that many times. For the most part, he’s grown.

HPW: What’s been the biggest development for him?

Eselu: The big difference is deciphering the coverage in pre-snap. We try to give him hints and clues, but we also do realize defense will try to coat that disguise that. It’s pretty good with all the knowledge and expertise and counter that counter. A lot, a lot, a lot of it has been reading.

HPW: His ability to get the ball out quickly makes it look like he’s playing Madden sometimes.

Eselu: He does play QB video games where he can always see it. I’m actually trying to get an A.I. kind of program system for Moanalua. Put him in the room and all you see is virtual atmosphere. I’ve got a few friends from Stanford and I’m working on this. (Note: Eselu is a graduate of Cal.)

HPW: June Jones once (or twice) said during his years at UH that he’d rather see his quarterbacks and receivers master what they do than try to do too many different things offensively.

Eselu: It’s exactly that. We don’t want to be a jack of all trades and master of none. If this is what we have in terms of personnel. Let’s treat the passes as long handoffs. We always analyze what’s coming in the upcoming year, where we might have deficiencies. Why do we need to run the ball? It’s our hope that with all our studs on the perimeter, they each get 40 to 50 touches for the season. Hopefully, defenses get lulled to sleep and we can get the big haymaker.

HPW: I can remember the 1970s and watching Fran Tarkenton and Chuck Foreman of the Minnesota Vikings connect a lot for quick 5-, 6-yard gains out of the backfield. But hardly another team would do it regularly. Today, it’s a huge benefit to have that in the package.

Eselu: The old school way of 3 yards and a cloud of dust football is starting to dissipate. You look at Mililani, Punahou, Campbell, you better make sure that first guy can make the tackle. This is about making the first guy miss and everybody rallying to the ball. That’s where we try to be innovative, and use the rallying to the ball against you. This game is based off of rugby. Why not utilize laterals?

HPW: Utilizing as many receivers as you do makes me think of the A-11 offense in California a decade ago.

Eselu: When I was at Cal they were running it at a city below us. It’s rugby, two seconds and the ball is snapped and that’s kind of where we did our own little studies there. That’s why we do all the shifting here. We try to keep people guessing here. That’s a DC’s nightmare worrying about shifts and empty packages and a crazy deal. Trick plays.

HPW: The NFL used to be so resistant, everything was about the pro set (split backs), under center. Now, the league has finally embraced almost every possible formation and wrinkle we used to see mainly in high schools and colleges.

Eselu: Like life in general, nobody likes change. You either accustom yourself to it, or fall by the wayside. Look at the (Kansas City) Chiefs, they use all kinds of looks. Now with (Pat) Mahomes. Like with the Rams. How far can you push it with all your weapons? That’s the game within a game.

HPW: How often do you and your staff go back and forth with ideas and debates?

Eselu: My brother, Lasi, is the DC. We’re both security here, so we have a lot of pen to paper things, what would you do with this, and I would counter with this.

HPW: When you look at Waipahu, having Alfred Failauga back healthy, what do you think?

Eselu: We saw he’s back. That’s Leilehua all over again. They got a runner just like (James) McGary, a wide receiver (Matthew Fiesta) like (Jeremy) Evans. They just use more tight ends. Utilizing a tight end creates a whole new ballgame. Me being a TE in college, if you can have that key guy, it’s a new ballgame.

HPW: Would you put your best DB, Trequan Henderson, on the tight end?

Eselu: Maybe. We have multiple strategies for whatever situation.

HPW: What has it been like for your O-line, blocking for an offense that is 2-to-1 pass-run ratio?

Eselu: We realized early on that it wasn’t a strong point, so we made sure Nick stays clean. So the ball is out in under a second, at most 1.5 seconds. If that works out, then the line is doing fantastic.

HPW: But when you’re in hurry-up mode, that’s always a test for linemen, and your O-line is doing the job. Who are the starters?

Eselu: We have (LT) Noah Enrico, (LG) Kaiea Kihune, (C) Anthony Jandoc, (RG) Natasha Paleafei and (RT) Zach Shiroma.

HPW: Natasha is one of the only starting linemen who happened to be a girl that I can remember. Nick Abramo wrote about her on Tuesday on Prep World.

Eselu: Yes. We call her “Incognito” now. As a lineman, she understands leverage.

HPW: I imagine defenses will gamble sometimes and bring everyone close to the line of scrimmage to stop your short-passing game.

Eselu: We realize that’s what teams will do, but we have a guy who can blow the lid off the top with Ezra (Grace). We’ve got (Javon) Monico and CJ (Paleafei), and We have the carver with Rudy (Kealohi). He can carve anybody within a 10-yard range. We call him our little Edelman.

HPW: When I saw Tupu Alualu at the GPA Combine last May, I was blown away by his explosiveness and motor. It’s no surprise how effective he has been on your D-line. Is he an NCAA qualifier already?

Eselu: Right now, he’s in the process, taking his tests. He hasn’t taken the SAT yet, but from what I understand, he is qualified (otherwise). The college and career center here is already on it.

HPW: So the story I remember is that you guys are family and live in a huge house with family.

Eselu: He’s my brother-in-law. (Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman) Tyson (Alualu) got a one-acre compound in Kalihi. All the family comes over and that’s kind of the rally, rendezvous point.

HPW: He’s such a dominant force. Who would be the most underrated player you have?

Eselu: I’d say Micah Kim, one of our inside linebackers. He also plays running back. He’s been needed heavily at the LB position. His motor, he doesn’t stop. For that position, especially against running teams with linemen trying to run to the second level, he’s too fast. He’s a blur when it comes to the run. At the very least, he’ll make an inside play spill outside. He’s like a very skinny, very fast Tupu.

HPW: Facing Waipahu, there are similarities between the two programs for Moanalua.

Eselu: I’m actually from Waipahu, I ended up going to Moanalua in high school. The black flag, I’ve always been a fan of the black flag. My cousin, Andrew Hale, was the RB for Waipahu and I’ve always been a fan since. Coach Carvalho has brought that strength back for sure. He’s doing a tremendous job.

HPW: Can you see Waipahu churning out clock-killing drives to keep your offense off the field?

Eselu: What’s what we did to Kahuku last year, stall. It was 14-6 or something like that going into the fourth quarter and attrition hurt us. We started losing guys.

HPW: That’s one of the key differences between Open and D-I teams, the number of big athletes.

Eselu: You’ve got to look at the whole gamut, how big of a roster, how big of a turnout every year. Your 4s and 5s and 6s might not know a lick of football, but they’ve got fresh legs. Here, we’ve got 1s and 2s.

HPW: Until this year, with three tiers, it’s been tough on teams that yo-yo up and down based on power rating, wins and losses.

Eselu: It keeps everyone happy in the long run. It comes down to coaching. If you have good coaching, you should be able to survive.

HPW: This too early to ask, but I’ll ask anyway. Nick Au will graduate, so who’s next in line to play QB in 2019?

Eselu: Jacob Copeland.

HPW: Oh, he’s the big guy who tore off some big runs early against Leilehua. The running back.

Eselu: Yes. I’m running a project with him. He can throw the ball. It might be a completely different offense. You might see some remnants of Tim Tebow.


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