Warriors of steel
|Warrior spring practice gallery|
By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Stephen Tsai
If imitation is high flattery, then the University of Hawai'i football team is preparing quite a tribute to the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
Everything needed to know about the Warriors' defense this spring training can be found on the commemorative DVD of the Steelers' 2005 season.
The Warriors' 30 defense — a blitzing 3-4 scheme with the cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage — uses the same terminology and techniques found in the Steelers' playbook.
"Our plays and their plays are identical," UH inside linebacker Solomon Elimimian said.
Technically, Jerry Glanville, in his second spring as UH's defensive coordinator, is innocent of poaching. As a defensive assistant in 1974, he helped implement the 30 defense with the Detroit Lions. Two years later, Bill Belichick joined the Lions' staff. Decades later, using the 30 defense, Belichick's New England Patriots won three Super Bowls. The Steelers have used the 30 since the early 1980s.
Glanville, who was hired by UH during the second week of spring practice last year, inherited a defense that played a 4-3 alignment the previous six seasons.
"I really came in not knowing one player," recalled Glanville, who settled an eternal debate by changing UH's system to fit his background. "I said, 'Let's go to work.' "
But switching schemes proved to be as difficult initially as filling a round hole with a rectangle. The ends, Melila Purcell III and Ikaika Alama-Francis, were quick pass-rushers in the 4-3 system, but were undersized and vulnerable to power runs in the 3-4. The Warriors also did not have consistent shut-down cornerbacks to make the transition from zone coverages in the secondary. The shortcomings weakened the Warriors' ability to blitz effectively.
Glanville addressed those concerns during the offseason. UH signed eight speedy prospects who can play cornerback, including C.J. Hawthorne, who will move from wideout to the secondary on Friday.
Glanville also crafted a plan to beef up the defensive line. Purcell and Alama-Francis, who weighed 266 and 250, respectively, were asked to report to spring practice at 279 pounds. Purcell is 282, Alama-Francis is 279.
"They transformed their bodies into more of what we're looking for from a physique standpoint," said Jeff Reinebold, who coaches the defensive line.
Glanville also moved Keala Watson, Fale Laeli and Rocky Savaiigaea from nose tackle to defensive end. Reinebold said those switches were designed to provide the girth that Moloka'i native Kimo von Oelhoffen provided for the Steelers last season. In the Super Bowl, von Oelhoffen controlled All-Pro left tackle Walter Jones, essentially containing the Seattle Seahawks' running attack.
"That made Kimo a lot of money," Reinebold said, referring to von Oelhoffen's signing of a three-year, $9.2 million contract with the New York Jets last month. "Kimo's not the prototypical NFL end. He's great in that scheme."
For a defensive end in the 30 scheme, the keys are to hold the edge (not being blocked inside by a tackle or end), chase the ball-carrier and serve as a pass-rusher. "The main thing is to create easy access to the line of scrimmage for the linebackers," Reinebold said.
Reinebold said Watson and Laeli — each weighing slightly less than 300 pounds — can be effective pass-rushers. "A lot of guys play so much Madden (video games) they think pass-rushing is a lot of really fancy moves," Reinebold said. "We show them how the Steelers understand that pass-rushing is about being violent and being sudden and attacking the offensive linemen. Once you do that, the nifty stuff happens. If you're spending your time on the line of scrimmage making moves on air, you're not helping us."
Yesterday, Laeli, who is practicing with the first team, fought off double blocks to close the running lanes. "It was rough," Laeli said. "There were guys coming at you from different angles. Even the fullback was coming at you. It was crazy. I kept muscling my way through. But it's good. We need big guys down there when teams try to run on us. We need muscle and strength."
In Jones' first season at UH, he increased the team speed by moving corners to safety, safeties to linebacker, linebackers to defensive end. To improve the team strength this year, the order has been reversed. Nose tackles are defensive ends, defensive ends are linebackers, and inside linebacker Brad Kalilimoku is listed as the top strong safety, for now. Relative to his college experience, Kalilimoku, who can bench press 400 pounds and run 40 yards in 4.56 seconds, is expected to fill the same role as Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu.
"But he's got to stay healthy," Glanville said of Kalilimoku, who did not practice yesterday because of a pulled left hamstring. Michael Malala has replaced Kalilimoku at strong safety.
"(Malala) is really coming on," Glanville said. "That's a lesson for 43 (Kalilimoku): Never leave your glove on the field. Somebody will pick it up. Somebody got sick a long time ago and they let Lou Gehrig play for him. We know how that turned out."
For now, the Warriors are focused on their steel-plated dreams.
"We watch a lot of film of the Steelers," said safety Leonard Peters, who has gained 35 pounds since last spring and now weighs 215. "The more we watch, the more we learn — about them and ourselves."
Reinebold said: "If you go into our offices, there's a library of tapes on the Steelers. The coaches can tell (the players) things, and they'll listen, but it makes a much bigger impact to show them a Steelers' tape. We'll use the tape to make a point, on how they play this technique or that formation. It's a great tool."
Reach Stephen Tsai at email@example.com.