Kahuku is ready to roll to a third straight state title game in 2017. Photo by Bruce Asato/Star-Advertiser.

The keys to the Big Red machine are jangling, and the driver is grinning from ear to ear.

It wasn’t hard at all for now-sophomore quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava to see what life on the other side of the playbook could be like. A year ago, the spotlight was bright, maybe occasionally blinding after he received a scholarship offer from Michigan before his high school career had even begun.

Then came a run to the OIA title, and a loss to Saint Louis in the state final. Through it all, Kahuku’s then-offensive coordinator was supposedly relieved on his duties, but retained on staff. Kahuku’s offense showed a willingness to open up, but wasn’t quite committed to it. It just wasn’t time.

First-year head coach Makoa Freitas is all about allowing his team to test the limits. Freitas wants a balanced offensive attack, but is also a stickler for the a sound ground attack that sets up the pass. The football equivalent, maybe, of an inside-out approach on the basketball court. It makes perfect sense. Yet, a change in offensive philosophy this fall is in no way the cure-all for all of Kahuku’s state-championship-loss woes. Gone are a half-busload of immense talent, so many leaders like all-state performers Kesi Ah-Hoy, Stokes Botelho and Kekaula Kaniho, the latter being the Star-Advertiser all-state defensive player of the year.

Unlike most public-school football programs that suffer severe drop-offs when large senior classes graduate, Kahuku has always benefited from the aura around its name, the bling that comes with arguably the finest gridiron tradition near and far. Once again, transfers from out-of-state — many who grew up on the North Shore – will play a role in Big Red’s run to the mountain top.

The two-time defending OIA champions are ranked No. 2 in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser preseason top 10.

In their scrimmage against Kamehameha at Kunuiakea Stadium, Maiava was in command of Kahuku’s wide-open attack. He wasn’t perfect, not in the first scrimmage of the season, but was dangerous, absolutely willing to air the ball out and give his athletic receivers a chance to make plays.

It was running back Wes Maiava, cousin of Sol-Jay, who came up with the most big plays. The former JV standout, who returned from Utah after one year, showed the kind of toughness inside and breakaway speed that could fill the void left by last year’s senior rushers, Elvis Vakapuna and Harmon Brown.

Wes Maiava wasn’t limited to ground duty. He hauled in a 65-yard touchdown pass from Sol the slinger on a perfectly executed deep post route. In fact, Maiava, the QB, aired out as many deep passes as the ’15 Red Raiders did for a whole season — or it just felt that way, at least.

The dozen returning starters from last year’s 11-2 team include junior linebacker Miki Ah You, defensive end Samson Reed and linebacker/punter Sekope Latu. Offensive linemen Enokk Vimahi and Cire Loo return to bolster the offensive front, while the defense has seasoned contributors in Cedric Iafeta, Samson Kapule-Siilata and Siaosi Lauhingoa on the line, Toalei Lefau at LB and Kaonohi Kaniho in the secondary.

The scholarship offer count is immense: Reed, with eight offers, has committed to Virginia; Sol-Jay Maiava (Fresno State, Hawaii, Michigan, Utah); Ah You (BYU, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah State); Vimahi (BYU, Fresno State, Hawaii); Iafeta (Hawaii, Navy); Lauhingoa (New Mexico, Utah State); Latu (BYU); sophmore OL Izaya Vimahi (BYU); LB/S Nalu Emerson (Hawaii); Kaniho (Hawaii); LB J.L. Lavea(BYU).

For the record, that is a total of 28 offers, and August has only just begun, and a number of the prospects, like Ah You and Maiava, are still underclassmen.

Kahuku championship football has rarely orbited around a star quarterback. The chapters to be written this season will, no doubt, shift from every aspect of the offense, defense and special teams. They will feature standout returnees and, possibly, some spectacular first-year starters.

But at some point, the onus will be on the offense to score. There will be a close game sooner or later. And this reliance on balanced offense will be put to the test. Maiava is ready for it. This pistol set has two backs, no tight end — at least from what the Red Raiders showed in the Kamehameha scrimmage last Thursday.

“I’ve got to get the ball out quick,” Maiava said. “The playbook is still pretty much the same. We have our bread and butter, bur we’re adding on little by little.”

Hey, it wouldn’t take a whole lot of arm-twisting, really, for Big Red to go pure smashmouth at any point for a half or even a full game. There’s no reason to completely junk the kind of wooly-mammoth destruction that worked so well in recent seasons. The threat and deployment of 2,000-plus pounds of stampeding rhinos and elephants brought and wrought havoc to opponents during Tata’s reign.

But the concept of a committed Red Raid by air is something no defense has needed to prepare for in more than a decade. Winter, at least in the OIA, is certainly coming.

To read our Kahuku preview that ran in today’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser, click here.

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