The Legend of the Hawaii Offense
Paul Johnson was hired by Georgia Southern head coach Erk Russell as a defensive assistant in 1983. In 1985, Russell promoted him to offensive coordinator. The Eagles won their first I-AA national championship that year, and repeated as champions in 1986. The success that Georgia Southern was having with Johnson’s spread option caught the eye of new Hawaii head coach Bob Wagner, and he hired Johnson to install that offense with the Rainbows. Johnson remained at Hawaii until he joined Charlie Weatherbie’s staff at Navy in 1995.
While Johnson’s offense at Hawaii was very successful, it has become one of the ultimate college football fish stories. Depending on what Navy fan you ask, Paul Johnson spent his time in Hawaii doing everything from passing for 4000 yards per year, to healing the sick and singlehandedly ending the Cold War. Fans from other schools trying to rally support to hire Johnson away from Navy talk about his Hawaii offense in order to sway those who don’t like the option. “He’ll change once he gets here. He threw the ball at Hawaii!” At Navy, the Hawaii offense has become a messianic prophecy. One day, they say, Paul Johnson will open up the playbook. Like the Jedi, he is simply waiting for the Chosen One; the quarterback who will bring balance to the offense. “Once the Hawaii Offense is unleashed, Navy will be unstoppable!”
Johnson himself has fanned the flames a little bit, talking about how his offense is set up to pass with 4 wide receivers, and mentioning on occasion that he indeed threw the ball some at Hawaii. It was because he had to. When Dick Tomey left Hawaii to take over the Arizona job in 1987, he left behind a team that wasn’t really suited to running the spread option, particularly at quarterback. So Johnson tailored his offense to allow his quarterbacks to throw more. This adjustment reached its zenith in 1990, when Garrett Gabriel threw for 2,752 yards and 25 touchdowns. Gabriel threw for 359 yards against BYU that year, and Hawaii also rushed for 308 yards that day. Outside of the BYU game, Gabriel averaged about 217 passing yards per game in 1990. That isn’t the overwhelming number that some people think it is, but it’s obviously more than what Navy throws for now.
Johnson did what he had to do to make his offense successful with what he inherited. At the time, that meant more passing. When recuiting his own players to meet his vision of his offense, though, Johnson brought in quarterbacks like Ivin Jasper and Michael Carter– guys who could run. No matter how much he passed before (and it really wasn’t that much), the bread and butter of this offense is and was the triple option. And while everyone’s imagination is captured by the year that Gabriel threw for all those yards, Hawaii’s best season actually came two years later. In 1992, with Michael Carter at the helm, Hawaii won the first conference championship in team history, going 11-2 and beating Illinois in the Holiday Bowl. That team was 2nd in the nation in rushing, averaging 293.3 yards per game. They threw for 1,316 yards.
Now, compare that Hawaii team– Johnson’s best– to what Navy is doing now. Navy is averaging 345 rushing yards per game, good for #1 in the nation. Halfway through the season, Navy has thrown for 658 yards… Meaning that they are on pace to throw for 1,316 yards by the end of the year. Sound familiar?
Let it roll around in your heads for a second, Navy fans. You may not have realized it, but Navy’s offense so far is actually outperforming the best team that Paul Johnson had at Hawaii. You can stop with your prayers of hope and start with your prayers of thanks.
The Hawaii Offense is at hand.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Paul Johnson was dipping into the dustier parts of his playbook this year, at least in throwing the ball. While the first three games of the season were fairly consistent with what we’ve seen out of the Navy passing game for a while now, things began to open up a bit against Duke. Navy threw for 236 yards against the Blue Devils, and it wasn’t as if those yards were gained on a last-second comeback attempt, either. Navy has averaged 160 yards through the air in its last three games; probably not enough to make anyone forget about Colt Brennan, but still nearly triple what Navy threw for a year ago.
The passing game is grabbing everyone’s attention lately, but Navy’s rushing game is more potent than ever. They haven’t changed anything schematically; there isn’t much to change, really. They’re doing what they’ve always done, just better. Navy has topped 300 yards on the ground in 5 of its first 6 games, including a 521-yard performance against Ball State. As a team, Navy averages a remarkable 5.6 yards per carry and 35 points per game. Seven different players have at least 100 rushing yards this season.
There are two reasons why the offense has been so effective: the quarterback and the offensive line.
Maybe it’s fate that Paul Johnson’s most effective Navy offense is being led by Navy’s own kama’aina at quarterback. How else could one explain how Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada would come under the tutelage of the MVP of that ’92 Holiday Bowl? The aforementioned Michael Carter was offensive coordinator of Kaipo’s Kapolei High school for two years. Carter employed an offense similar to the one he played under at Hawaii, and it was there that Kaipo began to learn his craft as a quarterback and wide receiver in this offense. Once Kaipo came to Navy to play for Carter’s old coach, it was as if everything came full circle.
It’s hard to imagine anyone coming to Navy with the offensive pedigree that Kaipo has. Not only did he play in this offense in high school, but a year spent at the Naval Academy Prep School allowed him to fine-tune his game even further. By the time Kaipo stepped in for an injured Brian Hampton halfway through his sophomore year, his knowledge and comfort level in the offense was far greater than a typical sophomore. The key to mastering Paul Johnson’s spread option is repetition, and Kaipo had been running similar plays for years. Now Kaipo is a junior, and we’re starting to see the fruits of his experience.
Young quarterbacks in the spread tend to focus on very specific reads. They zero in on their keys and react to what those keys do. Those are the basics. But over time and repetition, the quarterback gains a better understanding of the big picture. He is able to see beyond his keys to understand how to exploit the weaknesses in certain defensive alignments. For example, a quarterback might read pitch when he gets to his pitch key, but after seeing a weakness in the defensive alignment he decides to fake the pitch and cut upfield instead. Kaipo is seeing the big picture, and his performance has improved because of it. Kaipo has as many 100-yard games halfway through this year (four) as any other Navy quarterback has had for an entire season under Johnson.
Perhaps the biggest surprise this year has been Kaipo’s passing. Kaipo reportedly worked hard on throwing the ball over the summer, and he’s made notable improvements in both his arm strength and his footwork. But the most significant improvement in the Navy passing game has not been at quarterback, but with the offensive line. Last year, Navy had a sack/pass attempt ratio of .19, the worst in the country (by a wide margin). This year, that ratio has been cut almost in half, to .10. Kaipo is having more success throwing the ball because Navy’s offensive line is giving him the time to do it. A byproduct of this is that more receivers are getting involved in the passing game too. Nine different Navy players caught a pass against Duke. Five players caught a pass against Pitt. Navy’s passing game is more than just the A-pop this year, and that’s a direct result of the offensive line’s efforts.
So sleep well, Navy fans. The offense you were dreaming of is here.