COMMENTARY BY PAUL HONDA
This isn’t a post about June Jones.
It isn’t about Taulia Tagovailoa.
OK, maybe this is, but it’s also about a one-dimensional offense. A quarterback who is probably a world-class dart champion. And his catchers of spirals. His many catchers of spiraling pigskins.
But first, June Jones. In 2016, the former head coach at Hawaii, a guru of the run-and-shoot offense who once could have easily won the election to become governor of Hawaii (my opinion) — became the offensive coordinator at Kapolei High School. Scribing those words together, it almost feels like it never happened.
I still don’t know why I never interviewed him. Me, the guy who sat down with guru Ron Lee and filmed him sketching the Mouse Davis route tree on a white board at another high school, Kalani. (Wait, is this some kind of parallel life experience here for former UH coaches?) I’m also the guy who wishes I’d corralled Davis, Jones, Colt Brennan and Nick Rolovich together for a roundtable chat while they were all on Oahu back in August. (Ron Lee, too.)
Moving on. So Jones is the OC at Kapolei, basically a mentor to the prodigy, Taulia. Jones has taken everything he learned from Davis — he transferred from Hawaii to Portland State to play in the four-wide system — and taken it to another sphere. But let’s rewind a wee bit more to the ’15 season. Taulia is a freshman. His older brother, potential future Heisman Trophy winner Tua Tagovailoa, is all the rage at Saint Louis. A legend in the making. Taulia? He’s the smaller, younger gunslinger. Like Tua, Taulia emerged out of the Ewa Beach Sabers JPS program with quite a rep. But instantly comparing him to his brother — Tua racked up 33 TD passes with just three interceptions as a sophomore — would be unfair, right?
Well, Tua actually never played as a freshman at Saint Louis. Back then, the ILH had a rule about prohibiting freshmen from playing varsity football. They were permitting student-athletes to play any other sport as ninth graders, but not varsity football. Which is almost as interesting as the reason I was once told by the league several years ago about why their football games weren’t televised.
“We don’t want to exploit our student-athletes.”
Back to Taulia. His freshman season (2015) began as a battle at QB with a talented athlete, Ezra Savea, who was athletic enough to start at any skill position. (Again, my opinion.) In game one against Kaiser, Savea passed for 196 yards and Taulia went for 160 in a 49-28 win over the Cougars. Impressive.
In game two, Savea passed for 127 yards and Taulia didn’t register any stats in a 27-7 home loss to Kahuku.
From there, Taulia started every game. After 198 passing yards in a 20-6 loss at Kailua, his yardage count went like this.
@ Mililani, L 67-21 — 394 yards
Moanalua, W 33-21 — 448 yards
Campbell, W 16-7 — 265 yards
Farrington, W 23-6 — 199 yards
Aiea, W 16-6 — 165 yards
Castle, W 41-0 — 534 yards
@ Kahuku, L 56-10 — 356 yards
Freshman. And his dad, former Ewa Beach Sabers coach Galu Tagovailoa, was the OC. There was a game during that ’15 or maybe the ’16 season, that broke my scorebook. Taulia threw so many passes that I ran out of space on the two pages that are always more than enough to contain a passer’s record of statistics. There are 36 “boxes” in my book on each page. I don’t know where that stat book is now, but if I find it, I’ll post a pic.
Sophomore season, the numbers are more consistent. He delivers at least 254 passing yards in every game, but Taulia doesn’t crack the 400-yard mark more than once, against Castle. But the tutelage of Jones, the experience he gained as a freshman starter, and his natural intelligence created a game-by-game line for the ’16 season that no other sophomore, I believe, has ever achieved. Well, aside from Tua.
All of this leads me to, no, not Taulia moving to Alabama with his family and unleashing Mouse Davis-to-the-nth-degree holiness on poor defensive backs down south, but what I saw last week. At Aloha Stadium.
Moanalua’s offense isn’t as potent as the Taulia-era Kapolei Hurricanes. Na Menehune have barely any semblance of a ground attack. Every defense KNOWS that Nick Au will throw the ball — Moanalua had tossed the pigskin 68 percent of the time coming into the contest — and still hasn’t stopped him. Au was 32-for-42 against Waipahu, 353 yards, four TDs, no picks.
Au threw the ball exactly 21 times in the first half (15 completions, 217 yards) and 21 more times after the break (17 completions, 136 yards).
What wowed me about Moanalua’s offense, which also had 17 rushes for minus-41 yards in case anyone thinks Coach Savaii Eselu throws the ball because of anything but necessity, is Au’s mastery. He’s a second-year starter with no real help from the ground game, but he has a Plan B and Plan C, probably a Plan D anytime his first look isn’t available.
He began the game with deep throws down the middle to Ezra Grace, the deep threat, and possession guy Rudy Kealohi. Both went for TDs of 63 and 45 yards. Then it was a 12-yard completion to Javon Monico. Then, of course, Au force feeds Grace and Kealohi because he can’t stand short passes. NO.
Not at all. Au is the ultimate chess player. He went deep early only because Waipahu allowed it. But now, he is back in dart-champ mode. Three completions in a row to CJ Paleafei. Three yards. Six yards. Nine yards. He is 6-for-6. For the rest of the half, it’s short and intermediate looks. Grace has eight targets by halftime. Kealohi, the route master inside 10 yards according to Eselu, has five targets by the break. There’s one stretch in the second quarter when Au flings it to Kealohi three times in a row for two completions, eight yards apiece.
By intermission, Au has targeted six Menehune. By game’s end, Au has targeted nine teammates. But that’s deceiving. The second half was a preponderance of activity for Kealohi, who is targeted 11 times. He hauls in 10 receptions for 68 yards in the final two quarters. When Eselu says their passing game is basically “a long handoff,” he means it.
Kealohi finishes with 13 receptions for 129 yards. Grace has five for 89. Out of 10 incompletions, there is one drop all night. ONE. Eselu is an outside-the-box thinker who played tight end at Cal (and Moanalua), actually went to a local high school game in the Bay Area to see the now-illegal A-11 offense on display, and believes strongly that rugby maneuvers translate well to American football. We just haven’t seen everything he and his staff have cooking in the kitchen. Yet.
What Kapolei had during the Taulia years, which all of us at HPW thought would turn into an insane list of record-breaking totals over the span of four years, didn’t materialize into championships. But it was pure run-and-shoot delight in the hands of a prodigy.
What Moanalua has is more of a gridiron lab, turning ideas into working designs and, ultimately, success on the field. Moanalua is 7-0 now (6-0 OIA Division I). A league title, even a state crown, are in reach. Au’s accuracy is paramount. His 68-percent completion rate makes the machine churn. Anything less than 60 percent, and the system could go ker-plunk.
Looking ahead just a bit, Eselu already has an inkling of what the next-gen offense will look like. Perhaps running back Jacob Copeland, who can heave the ball quite a ways, might become the next Tim Tebow at quarterback. Or not.
Jones and Galu and Taulia — and Ron Lee and Tua — were, and are, perfectionists, honing the four-wide to full capacity. The minds at Moanalua are tinkerers from year to year. Jones always said he did his best recruiting when Hawaii played on ESPN. VHS tapes arriving in the football office the following Monday after UH games. Quarterback talent flying to the islands, or homegrown, year after year. Taulia was a once-in-a-generation talent for a public school, and Jones’ relationship with the Tagovailoa family gravitated the coach to the West side. Though we never got to see Taulia’s junior- and senior-year production, the results remain impeccable.
Taulia 2015: 10 games, 217-for-387, 2,784 yards, 22 TDs, 12 INT, 56% completion rate, 7.2 yards per attempt, QB Rating 129.06
Taulia 2016: 13 games, 320-for-526, 3,919 yards, 42 TDs, 9 INT, 61%, 7.5 YPA, QBR 146.35
This is known as maximum four-wide. Moanalua? It’s more of ball-control four-wide. Na Menehune have more games to play, possibly five if they make it to the state final.
Au 2018: 7 games, 194-for-285, 1,955 yards, 21 TDs, 11 INT, 68%, 6.9 YPA, QBR 142.29
Bottom line, both QBs put their teams into the best possible position to win games. Period. But the numbers are eye-popping.
Jones has been and always will be a quarterback whisperer. At Moanalua, Eselu isn’t assuming that kind of arrival next season. Looking ahead just a bit, Eselu already has an inkling of what the next-gen offense will look like. Perhaps running back Jacob Copeland, who can heave the ball quite a ways, might become the next Tim Tebow at quarterback. Or not.
After 2018, Eselu will be prepared to test the big brains of his Menehune with a new system. Or the old. Or a blend. I can almost wait for it.