HONOLULU — Justin Ayat came out to make kicks through the uprights, Bryant Moniz slung passes to fans and Chad Owens, complete with mid-2000s emerald green uniform, shagged punts in the end zone.
The faces were definitely old during the breaks in the action of the Hawaii football spring game and “Island Day” celebration of the Timmy Chang coaching era on Saturday night at the Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex.
But during the simulated game, a crop of new players largely unfamiliar to the roughly 6,000 fans in attendance got to show their work from 12 practice sessions over the last four weeks.
Jake Farrell and Brayden Schager were the starting quarterbacks for the white and green squads, and both delivered early scoring drives in UH's new hybrid run-and-shoot/run-pass-option offense. Farrell, in fact, connected with junior receiver Tamatoa Mokiao-Atimalala three times for touchdowns before halftime. On one, Mokiao-Atimalala caught a ball over the middle and outraced the defense more than 60 yards to the Diamond Head end zone.
“After the first drive (a three-and-out) I kind of got into the groove of everything,” said Farrell, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who has been with UH since 2020 but has not seen game action. “Once that kind of happened, it clicks and everything’s rolling. Tama made some great plays on all three of those touchdowns. The line did a great job blocking, that was against the ‘1’ defense, so they did a great job. You gotta give them a lot of credit.”
The setting of the Ching Complex was almost as new as the players. Food trucks and beer vendors lined the track, concession stands were manned and there were pregame festivities like a keiki play area and a concert as the venue was stress-tested for an athletic event like never before – including the 2021 season, when UH filled up the stands nly to about half of the 9,000 capacity for its last few home games.
Saturday was a possible preview of what could await in the fall starting with the 2022 season opener Aug. 27 against Vanderbilt. Granted, Saturday was free to attend.
“(The crowd) was the best part of everything,” said Mokiao-Atimalala, a former Campbell standout who has been a scout teamer and reserve receiver the last two years. Judging by some of the prominent player losses UH underwent in the offseason and his performance of 130-plus yards Saturday, he could see a drastically increased role in the fall.
“The energy from the crowd, this whole new Chang era, it’s amazing,” Mokiao-Atimalala said. “We thank everybody for coming out and it’s going to be packed out like this for every game.”
After the white squad won 27-24 at the end of four 15-minute periods, Chang, sporting a "Braddahhood" cap – the ubiquitous slogan the team has adopted – gave credit to the UH athletic department and university as a whole for putting the complex event on successfully. He also took a microphone and on behalf of the team thanked the remaining fans for coming.
Chang seemed impressed by what transpired, including the spontaneous relocation of the Rebel Souljahz pregame concert from Les Murakami Stadium to SimpliFi Arena once foul weather complicated things.
“The energy and the buzz that the fans brought was unbelievable,” Chang said. “It was pretty special. I know our players appreciate it. I appreciate it as well.”
Chang acknowledged some mistakes during the scrimmage but said that the important thing is the players on the spring roster keep growing as new teammates continue to join the rebuilding program leading into the fall. There are still three spring practices remaining.
Chang said the depth chart will remain fluid right up until the Aug. 27 opener. When asked about the quarterback battle this spring, he did acknowledge that Schager and Farrell have performed well, but said that the race is far from over. Others like Armani Edden, Cammon Cooper and Ephraim Tuliloa saw work Saturday. Walk-on Chad Owens Jr. even got in for a series in the running-clock second half after tossing a “touchdown” ball to his dad, one of the best receivers in program history, at halftime.
"I feel like everybody’s getting better," said Edden, a 6-foot senior. "It’s still a competition, and shoot, I love to compete. I’m here for it and excited for what the future brings."
The players, independently from Chang’s direction, learned a ha‘a from UH alums like Brad Kalilimoku and Keala Watson. They performed it soon after taking the field, to the delight of the crowd.
UH has not had a ha‘a for several seasons.
“(The ha‘a) feels like Hawaii football,” said defensive back Leonard Lee, who snagged two interceptions during the spring game. “It feels like such a big part of the culture here. Such a big pillar in this program. Things like that are so iconic.”
Lee, who was removed from the team under Todd Graham after speaking out about mistreatment of players, was re-invited by Chang prior to the spring.
“How things went down last year, I thought football was going to be done for me,” Lee said. “Coach Chang, Coach Abe (Elimimian), Coach (Jacob) Yoro, Coach Nate (Ilaoa) … they really fought for me. … Blessed and thankful, that’s the two words that come to mind.”
UH executed punts and kickoffs in the spring game, but with fair catches only. Kickers Kyler Halvorsen and Matthew Shipley both had their moments with field goals, with Shipley booting the longest at 55 yards.
Chang said the day’s festivities were important for recruiting. Case in point, some recruits appeared to greet him on the field as players, coaches, media and fans mingled soon after the game.
“We didn’t finish our class. We’re slowly getting in the right pieces that we need to get this forever-going puzzle of our roster,” Chang said. “It’s just going to be ongoing. When we hit Aug. 27, the guys that are peaking and taking care of their bodies and academics, doing what we ask and making good choices, those are the guys you’re going to see playing.”
More photos of the day:
Brian McInnis covers the state's sports scene for Spectrum News Hawaii.