Hawaii was not a good defensive team last season. They ranked 115th in the country in scoring defense, 118th in passing defense, and 105th in rushing defense. UH opponents scored a minimum of 30 points in every contest except for a 28-21 overtime loss to San Diego State.
Those rankings, however damning they may seem, perhaps make the '13 defense look worse than it actually was. In the season-opener against USC, the Trojans could barely manage a third down for much of the first half. Unfortunately, at that point the Taylor Graham led offense couldn't take advantage, and the UH defense couldn't hold back USC's superior talent over a full four quarters. The 30-13 final score was not representative of the entire game.
The same could be said about the subsequent losses to Oregon State (33-14) and Nevada (31-9). The defense held strong enough to give the team a chance, but the offense couldn't provide support and eventually the D would wear down and the floodgates would open. Unfortunately, once Schroeder took over and the Rainbow Warriors started scoring in droves, it was the defense that failed to hold up its side of the bargain. The perfect example: a 59-56 overtime loss to Wyoming in the second-last game of the season.
During the off-season UH's 4-3 has been transformed into a true 3-4 (as opposed to UW, which lists the BUCK as a linebacker but includes a NT and a DT on the depth chart instead of two defensive ends) by new defensive coordinator Kevin Clune. With the scheme change and the regular turnover of a new season, Washington will be dealing with a very different defense than the unit that appears on the 2013 tape.
The best player on the line, and maybe even the defense, is senior Beau Yap (6'2" 260). He will start at defensive end, but expect him to move all around the front-seven, including to OLB to rush the QB in obvious passing situations. Yap led the team in sacks last season with 5.5, and came in 3rd with 12 tackles for loss.
Kennedy Tulimasealii (So.) appears likely to start as the other DE. Moses Samia (Sr.) returns to man the all-important nose tackle spot. Technically the line lost two out of four starters, but the scheme change means that no one will take over Sasau Matagiese's 3-tech DT role, leaving Tulimasealii as the lone newcomer.
If Hawaii didn't have to replace Brenden Daley (MIKE) and Art Laurel (WILL), I would probably be singing a different tune about this defense. The pair combined for 27.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks and both started all 12 games.
Now the coaching staff is forced to replace Daley and Laurel while also adding a second starting MIKE to fit the 3-4 scheme. The projected starters include one starter from last season, senior ILB Jerrol Garcia-Williams (56 tackles, one sack, three TFLs playing OLB last year), the two most productive backups from last year (senior OLB TJ Tamituia and senior ILB Tevita Lataimua), and highly-touted UCLA transfer OLB Jeremy Castro.
It would be a little unfair to call this unit green, given that three out of the four are seniors, but everyone aside from Garcia-Williams is certainly unproven. A lot of pressure is put on the linebacking corps to make plays in this scheme, with the defensive line more focused on occupying blockers. There will be no time for mental errors or hesitation against Washington's deep stable of backs and the strong, mobile Lindquist.
Edit: The Hawaii game notes actually have Castro as an OR starter with TJ Tamituia at OLB. Juniors Julian Gener and Simon Poti are listed as OR starters at the second ILB spot. These changes don't exactly increase my confidence in this unit.
The Rainbow Warriors will enjoy one luxury that Washington will not: returning both starting cornerbacks. Ne'Quan Phillips (5'9" 185) earned All-MWC Honorable Mention honors as a sophomore last year, while Tacoma, WA and Lakes HS product Dee Maggitt (5'10" 170) started in 12 of 13 games in his junior year.
That good fortune is balanced out by the loss of both starting safeties. The previous starters, strong safety John Hardy-Tuliau and free safety Charles Clay, combined for 121 tackles, 13 TFLS, and zero interceptions. New starter Trayvon Henderson (6'0" 185), who played nickelback as a freshman in '13, snagged three picks all by himself last season. The other starter, Taz Stevenson, recently transferred over from UW.
Pass defense was Hawaii's greatest weakness last year, including a particular affinity for surrendering big plays over the top of the defensive backfield. The secondary may improve overall, but I suspect they will still struggle with surrendering back-breaking plays even as they generate more turnovers.
On this side of the ball, Hawaii appears to lose too many important contributors from a defense that was mediocre to bad last year to begin with.
Beau Yap is a disruptive presence who spent a lot of '13 in the opponent's backfield, but the level of talent around him will allow the coaching staff to send blocking help if he begins to hurt the Husky offense.
Ne'Quan Phillips is an above-average MWC player, but obviously he can only cover one receiver at a time. Will the UW offense really be crippled if Marvin Hall or DiAndre Campbell is blanketed?
Above all else, three out of four new starters at linebacker should have the four-headed monster of Dwayne Washington, Lavon Coleman, Jesse Callier, and Deontae Cooper licking their chops. Will that LB unit be able to adapt to tackling four backs with distinct running styles? Will they be able to pick up the slack if UH's 3-man defensive line fails to occupy UW's beefy O-line, or will they be caught watching as linemen move up to block at the second level? Will they be able to bring down Jeff Lindquist when he ventures outside the pocket, given that at 246 pounds he outweighs all four starters (not combined, unfortunately)?
There are simply too many question marks for anyone to reasonable expect this defense to overcome a sizable talent gap and outplay Washington's offense.