Hawai’i looking for redemption against Vanderbilt as Week 0 arrives 

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED AUG 24, 2023

HONOLULU – The Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors have landed in Nashville and the countdown to the 2023-24 NCAA football season has almost hit zero. After year one under current Hawai’i head coach Timmy Chang was spent evaluating the current roster, the former record-setting UH quarterback and his current ‘Bows staff spent the offseason diving into re-shaping the roster and program to fit together. 

The ‘Bows stacked their non-conference schedule, taking on Power 5 programs in three of their first four contests (Vandy, Stanford and Oregon) before kicking off Mountain West action at UNLV on September 30. 

With just about 48 hours until the ‘Bows kickoff for their Week 0 road matchup against Vanderbilt, let’s take a deeper look into two programs that are more similar than meets the eye. 

Tale of the Tape – (Brief) History of Vandy-Hawai’i 

The two programs met for the first time ever last season when the Commodores visited Honolulu to open the Chang era for the ‘Bows. After Hawai’i jumped out to an early first quarter lead, Vanderbilt dominated on the ground and used a 35-point third-quarter explosion to blow out the Rainbow Warriors. 

The Commodores ran wild for over 400 yards on the ground, totaling over 600 yards of total offense as they blitzed a Hawai’i program that players have admitted to “not knowing what [we were doing yet]” in the opening game for the new ‘Bows regime. 


Vanderbilt Offense Shifts to Youth 

Entering the third season under Vanderbilt alum and former fullback Clark Lea, some questions on offense hover above the Commodores’ head after they developed an identity as a disciplined, run-first football team with a dual-threat quarterback helping them double their win total from the year prior. 

Former starting QB Mike Wright, who rushed for 163 yards, passed for 146 more and accounted for four total touchdowns in the Vanderbilt’s 2022 season-opening win over the Rainbow Warriors, transferred away in the offseason to Mississippi State. Vanderbilt’s offense also lost leading rusher and 1,000-yard back Ray Davis, who transferred to SEC rival Kentucky for his final season of eligibility. 

Sophomore QB AJ Swann, who saw action against Hawai’i and started six games for the Commodores in 2022, is expected to be the starter for Vanderbilt heading into Week 0. He ranked fourth in Vandy program history for freshmen gunslingers with 1,195 yards passing in his first season, finishing just behind longtime NFL veteran Jay Cutler on the program list. 

Patrick Smith, or “Cheeks” as teammates call him, will get the first crack at replacing Davis as the bell cow for the Commodores. He should benefit from a veteran offensive line that opened rushing lanes to help buoy Vanderbilt’s attack at times last season. That role will be important going forward due to the Commodores desire to control time of possession against opponents. 


Hawai’i Embracing Identity 

Hawai’i had an ongoing quarterback battle during the debut matchup between the two teams, playing both Brayden Schager and Joey Yellen in the 63-10 loss. This time around, Schager has been QB1 for the ‘Bows since the end of last season and all the way through spring and summer camp while the program makes a transition back to the famed Hawai’i ‘Run-N-Shoot’ offense. 

While the offense has dominated training camp headlines for Hawai’i, it’s the defense that has looked like a stronger group heading into the season. The ‘Bows boast one of the best secondaries in the entire Mountain West with Virdel Edwards II, who was tied for most interceptions on the team last season with three, being joined by Wyoming transfer and preseason All-Mountain West selection Cam Stone manning the outside for Hawai’i. The safety room for the ‘Bows is one that won’t get enough credit for the talent they display as well. 

After a full season of experience and an offseason of dynamic additions for the ‘Bows roster, the defense is chomping at the bit to show that the 63-point outburst from last season was not only an outlier, but a downright fluke. 


Players to Watch – Hawai’I Rainbow Warriors 

Brayden Schager – QB (Jr.) 

Duh. 

All eyes are on Schager as he enters the 2023 season as the unquestioned QB1 for the ‘Bows, looking to build on a strong finish to last year. While the initial numbers don’t grab your attention (2,348 passing yards, 13 TDs on 55% passing), he did toss touchdown passes in each of the final nine games of the year for Hawai’i as the offense put up three 30-point performances while increasing their scoring average by more than four points a game.  

With the comfort of being able to focus on game prep instead of winning a starting job, Schager has looked better by the day this summer during training camp. Some of that has to do with the weapons at the junior’s disposal. Hawai’i added former Kansas wideout Steven McBride to the roster and the 6-foot-1 speedster has quickly developed chemistry with the help of a few deep ball completions – or Schager Bombs, as the ‘Bows affectionately refer to them as – against a strong Hawai’i secondary. 

The Dallas, Texas native also will benefit from having senior wide receiver Jonah Panoke on the field again. The St. Louis graduate played in seven games last season, missing a large portion in the middle of the season before returning for the ‘Bows final three contests. The 6-foot-1 pass catcher enjoyed a nice outing last season against the Commodores, totaling seven receptions for 101 yards for his highest output of the season. 

Oh yeah, there’s also this other guy that jumpstarted the ‘Bows offense… 

Tylan Hines – RB (Soph.) 

One of two true freshmen ‘Bows to earn honorable All-Mountain West selections for their efforts last season, Hines burst onto the scene with an incredibly productive first season at the college level. 

The 5-foot-7 running back ranked second nationally among freshman runners with an average of 7.6 yards per carry but showed potential in the passing game as well with nine receptions for 82 yards in limited action. His quickness has reminded many Hawai’i football historians of the dynamic Chad Owens, one of the favorite targets from ‘Bows head coach Timmy Chang’s playing days. 

Speaking of Chang, the head guy for Hawai’i told reporters on August 9 that Hines was his “darkhorse to be the Mountain West Player of the Year” and went on to talk about how he expects the back to get a significant number of touches in the offense and “be great” for the ‘Bows in ‘23. 

Cam Stone – CB (Sr.) 

Arguably the biggest name addition to the roster this offseason, cornerback Cam Stone was the lone Hawai’i player selected to a preseason all-Mountain West team. He has gotten praise from teammates all throughout camp, with Schager going as far as to call him “probably the best corner in the [Mountain West]” when practices began in July. 

It’s easy to see why, too. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound corner showed out against Hawai’i last season with sticky coverage and a game-high three passes broken up in Wyoming’s 27-20 victory over the ‘Bows. He led the Cowboys with 10 PBUs and two interceptions last year on his way to being named an All-Mountain West honorable mention. 

In new digs and in a new number, Stone will get his first chance to show off just why he has gotten so much preseason attention. He was also among 35 players named to the Jim Thorpe Award preseason watch list, an award given to college football’s top defensive back as judged by on-field production, ability and character. He is the first Rainbow Warrior since Cortez Davis in 2021 to be named to the watch list. 

Peter Manuma – S (Soph.) 

The other true freshman for the Rainbow Warriors that earned honorable mention all-Mountain West, Manuma was the definition of a do-it-all safety in his collegiate debut. He tallied a pair of interceptions, two forced fumbles and a sack for the ‘Bows in 13 contests, racking up 70 tackles along the way. 

Spoiler for those hoping for his downfall: he looks like he only got bigger, faster and stronger in the offseason. 

Perhaps more than any player in the program, Manuma benefitted greatly from Hawai’i football’s head strength and conditioning coach Kody Cooke’s offseason program. He looks to be processing and diagnosing plays quicker than last season as well, a scary thought for opponents that got a taste of what he is capable of already. 

One of those opponents is Vanderbilt, who saw Manuma force a fumble when the two squads met in Honolulu last year in his first career game. He came on strong as the season progressed and it would not be a shock to see the sophomore lead the team in tackles and turnovers forced this season for Hawai’i. 


 

Players to Watch – Vanderbilt Commodores 

AJ Swann – QB (Soph.) 

I repeat, duh. 

Alright, maybe that isn’t fair. Vanderbilt is a program that is known to want to establish the running game with their strong offensive line and desire to control time of possession since Vandy head coach and alum Clark Lea took over before the 2021 season. Why would the QB have any watch value? 

Swann was a three-star recruit coming out of high school and showed signs of solid quarterback play across nine games in his first year. He took excellent care of the ball in his debut season but also has lost the previous seven games that he has appeared in for Vanderbilt. With the loss of Davis, the Commodores may rely more on the arm of the sophomore this season as they attempt to re-establish the running identity with a different face in the backfield. 

Will Sheppard – WR (Sr.) 

Luckily for Vanderbilt and their young quarterback, the program has a bona fide number one receiver in senior wideout Will Sheppard. With a frame of 6-foot-3 and just under 200 pounds, he provides a target that Swann can lock onto when in doubt. 

He had two touchdowns against the ‘Bows last season and was one of seven SEC pass catchers named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list heading into the 2023 season. While he will be someone who will get his touches, he’s also at the top of every team’s scouting report after posting over 750 yards and nine touchdown catches last year. 

If the Commodores struggle to get the rushing attack established, will Sheppard be able to be the go-to guy for Swann and Co. or will the ‘Bows talented secondary be able to hold the senior all-SEC selection in check? 


 

Final Thoughts and Key Matchups 

The ‘Bows haven’t beaten an SEC team since ‘03 when Alabama fell to Hawai’i in Honolulu, 37-29, and they got smoked by Vanderbilt last year. Why should Rainbow Warrior fans be optimistic heading into the opener? Are the Commodores taking their Week 0 opponent seriously or is this just a buy-game for the SEC program? 

If his Tuesday press conference was any indication, Lea certainly isn’t taking Chang’s ‘Bows lightly despite last year’s result. The third-year head coach consistently compared Hawai’i to where the Commodores were last season in year two of his regime, talking about how massive one offseason of recruiting and install can be for a young program on the rise. 

“We are a team that cannot take anything for granted and the one thing we’ve harped on here is [this Vanderbilt program] made great progress from year one to year two here, this Hawai’i team will, too,” Lea said on Tuesday. “I’ve got a ton of respect for Timmy Chang; I’ve got a ton of respect for the Hawai’i football program. These guys are tough, they’re prideful, they’re not too far removed from a 10-win season… We have to be ready to play. We’re going to have to be focused and we have to finish. If we don’t, this Hawai’i team has everything they need to make it a long afternoon and evening for us, and we know that.” 

Hawai’i is eager to redeem themselves after last season’s matchup, while Vanderbilt looks to answer some questions about this edition of the Commodores. Both programs are looking to return to bowl games, needing to win six games minimum to qualify for one of the bowls and hope that Week 0 can springboard them towards that goal. 

A couple key matchups to keep an eye on this Saturday when the ‘Bows and Commodores suit up and kick off? Glad you asked, let’s look. 

1. Vandy WR room versus the ‘Bows secondary 

If you haven’t been able to pick it up yet, expectations from both inside and outside the Hawai’i program are for this ‘Bows secondary to be a formidable unit in 2023-24. Edwards II, Stone, and Manuma are all players who will garner all-conference consideration if they can keep healthy. 

That’s not to say there isn’t more depth and talent in the secondary, as junior safety Meki Pei finished the ‘22 season strong on the way to securing the starting job next to Manuma for this season. The former walk-on has turned himself into a key cog to the last line of defense for the ‘Bows. Junior college transfer C.J. Williams from Shasta College (Ca.) has impressed in camp and looks to be the top reserve outside cornerback. 

Having all of that talent will be important for the road Rainbow Warriors, with Vanderbilt boasting a talented array of skill players for AJ Swann to pass to. We’ve already gone over the impact preseason all-SEC selection Will Sheppard can make, but don’t sleep on sophomore Jayden McGowan for Vanderbilt. The second-year athlete recorded over 450 yards receiving last season and looks to be primed for a breakout after filling a similar role in energizing the Commodores as what Hines did for Hawai’i. 

While the ‘Bows won’t have to worry about 6-foot-7 sophomore tight end Cole Spence, who Lea announced was out for the season on Tuesday, Vanderbilt has a pair of intriguing tight ends in graduate student Justin Ball (6-6, 247 lbs.) and freshman Kam Johnson (6-5, 221 lbs.) that provide a pair of significantly-sized targets and blockers for the Commodores offense. 

It’ll be even more interesting to see how the two groups match up should the rushing attack of Vanderbilt stumble early on. 

2. ‘Bows Aerial Attack versus Commodores Pass-Rush 

With Hawai’i switching to the Run ‘N Shoot full-time, everyone (including Vanderbilt) expects a pass-heavy attack on Saturday from the ‘Bows. While the talk about Schager Bombs is fun, deep shots will only be a small part of the offensive game plan. While it may not be as commonplace in the minds of old-time Hawai’i football fans, this edition of the RNS offense under Chang has an increased usage of the tight end position and a speedy back in Hines to worry about in the back field. 

Vanderbilt will also be without two key players on the defensive line, as sophomore EDGE Darren Agu and graduate defensive lineman Christian James are both expected to miss the weekend contest as they deal with injuries that have them listed as “week-to-week” going forward. 

That doesn’t mean the SEC program won’t have depth to fall back on though, and with Hawai’i adding some new pieces to the offensive line this offseason (multiple ‘Bows linemen from last year’s squad signed NFL contracts leading into this year), it’ll be interesting to see how much time the ‘Bows can muster for Schager in the pocket. 

That’s where the short game comes into play and the question becomes whether Schager can distribute the ball quick enough to his playmakers to keep the chains moving and tire out a defensive line that is not at full strength. 


Final thoughts from the peanut gallery, it’s going to be a tough matchup for Hawai’i for Week 0, from the talent and discipline of Lea’s team to the triple-digit heat that is expected on Saturday. While an upset is not out of the question fully, fans should look more to the spread for an indication of how the matchup is expected to go (Vanderbilt is a -17.5-point favorite). 

The ‘Bows will likely keep the game close in the first half and the questions of stamina in heat for the second half and depth compared to their SEC counterparts on the opposite sideline will decide the final margin. Expect it to be closer than last season’s 63-10 thrashing, but it does still feel like Hawai’i falls short of a Week 0 win. 

You can watch the game on the SEC Network, with kickoff scheduled for 1:30 p.m. HT on Saturday. Vanderbilt is donating part of the proceeds from every ticket sold to the Hawai’i Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund, which you can donate to as well here.