Hawaii’s QB stars ready for big season across the South
Marcus Mariota’s emergence as one of the NFL’s top young stars helped a lot of people realize a good quarterback can be found in the state of Hawaii.
A few years later, it’s become obvious the islands have quite a few guys who can spin a football.
The 24-year-old Mariota — now entering his fourth season with the Tennessee Titans after winning the Heisman Trophy at Oregon — was the start of a mini-wave of quarterbacks from Hawaii who are now making a name for themselves at the college level all over the football-crazed Southeast.
Among the standouts:
— Sophomore Tua Tagovailoa is fighting for the starting job at Alabama after leading a second-half comeback in last season’s national championship game. The strong-armed lefty threw for 166 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Georgia.
— McKenzie Milton returns for his junior season after leading Central Florida to an undefeated season in 2017. Milton threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns.
— Senior Jordan Ta’amu has emerged as the starter at Mississippi after filling in for the injured Shea Patterson last season. Ta’amu completed nearly 67 percent of his passes for 1,682 yards and 11 touchdowns and earned the full-time job in the offseason after Patterson left for Michigan.
“Marcus started the wave of quarterbacks from Hawaii blowing up,” Milton said. “Myself, Jordan and Tua have kind of kept that train going.”
All four quarterbacks are from Oahu and have a lot of connections. Milton said they have all trained together or played against each other, whether in high school games or in more informal settings like camps. Both Mariota and Milton credited Vince Passas — the quarterbacks coach at the St. Louis School in Honolulu — for helping develop Hawaii’s quarterback talent.
Mariota and Tagovailoa both played at St. Louis.
“He has quarterback camps every Sunday that kids from elementary school to high school go to,” Milton said. “They go out there, throw and compete. Some of the best of the best are there. Marcus will show up when he’s back home. You can just kind of compare yourself to those guys and see how good you really are.”
Passas said he’s not surprised the four quarterbacks continue to have success. While flattered that Mariota and Milton praised his teaching and tips, he said the credit goes to them.
“I’m just really happy those young men came out here and tried to find ways to get better,” Passas said. “It’s a great atmosphere to prove their skill. You could always be doing other things — going to the beach, surfing, the mall, PlayStation — but instead they put in the time and effort.”
Mariota said he keeps up with the college quarterbacks and roots for them. He said people forget that Hawaii has a history of producing good quarterbacks, including Timmy Chang (Hawaii), Darnell Arceneaux (Utah) and Jason Gesser (Washington State).
“It’s exciting to see kind of this new wave, and hopefully they’ll continue to represent Hawaii and do everything to the best of their abilities and just kind of put that first and foremost and continue to represent home in a good way,” Mariota said.
Out of the four players, Ta’amu’s emergence is perhaps the most unlikely. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder was largely unnoticed while playing his high school football at a place that wasn’t a traditional powerhouse like St. Louis. He played in junior college at New Mexico Military, eventually transferred to Ole Miss and was expected to be the backup for Patterson before emerging as a talented passer following Patterson’s knee injury.
“There’s something in the water for sure,” Ta’amu said. “I feel that there’s a lot more kids who are being overlooked. We’re just trying to make a name for Hawaii and put Hawaii on the map.”
Barton Simmons, who is the national director of scouting for 247Sports, said there are several challenges when prospects from Hawaii are trying to get noticed. For quarterbacks, it’s even more difficult.
Simmons said many college coaches like to build their recruiting classes around QBs, so the offers are sent early and the commitments come early. Because Hawaii is far from the mainland and relatively small, there isn’t as much information available.
“The evaluation process takes a little more time just because people don’t see them as much,” Simmons said. “The buzz trickles out a little slower with Hawaiian kids.”
Still, the emergence of Ta’amu, Tagovailoa, McKenzie and Mariota should serve notice to college coaches that athletes can be found on the islands.
“The talent has a way of bubbling up,” Simmons said.
Hawaii’s quarterback prowess might be on full display on Sept. 15 when Alabama comes to Ole Miss. Depending on Alabama’s quarterback battle, a Tagovailoa vs. Ta’amu matchup is possible.
“I’m excited for that,” Ta’amu said laughing. “Hopefully he’s the starting quarterback, it’ll be Hawaii vs. Hawaii and everyone’s looking forward to that one.”
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this story. Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP