Justin Uahinui’s change of heart during National Signing Day in 2017 wasn’t out of the norm, as high school football prospects flipping to sign with different schools has become standard practice.
At the time, the Farrington senior ultimately signed with Hawaii as a preferred walk-on that fateful day at the Sheraton Waikiki. But it’s the school he turned down that made his circumstances unique.
Uahinui was originally committed to Nihon University in Tokyo, where the Phoenix offered him a scholarship at quarterback. On Monday, when he was asked to look back at the decision 12 days before the 2019 season opener against Arizona, the redshirt sophomore quarterback was confident he made the right choice.
“I think things really would have been different for me,” he said. “I think the talent there is nowhere near the talent here.”
Playing college ball in front of friends and family always appealed to Uahinui. He also admitted that he doesn’t speak any Japanese.
“It was a family decision altogether,” Uahinui said. “If I went to school in Japan, I would’ve been far away from my family. We thought it was best for everybody if I stayed home and I went to UH.”
Joining the Rainbow Warriors didn’t become a possibility until Hawaii quarterbacks coach and passing coordinator Craig Stutzmann pursued Uahinui shortly before the 2017 NSD date of Feb 1.
“It was probably a week or two before signing day and I remember talking to him on the phone and letting him know that we weren’t gonna be signing a guy that class,” Stutzmann said. “We wanted to recruit him as a walk-on and let him compete with guys that were already on the team.
“We liked the way he threw the ball and he has a humble heart. Local guy — we want to keep those guys. It’s been a great deal for us.”
Indeed, the 2017 signing class for Hawaii became infamous for not inking a single local recruit or quarterback to a scholarship. In Uahinui, the Rainbow Warriors had both, albeit as a walk-on.
Nick Rolovich and his staff have put more of an emphasis on local recruiting since then, spearheaded by getting Chevan Cordeiro to pledge to UH before starting a single game at Saint Louis.
During Uahinui’s time on the Hawaii roster, he’s outlasted Dru Brown, Cole Brownholtz, and Jeremy Moussa — scholarship quarterbacks who departed the UH roster, and the last two of whom would’ve been eligible for the 2019 season. (Brown, who redshirted last season as a senior transfer to Oklahoma State, is still playing as a graduate student this season.) The heavy turnover at quarterback left Cole McDonald, Cordeiro and Uahinui as the only three quarterbacks on the roster this spring.
The reps and experience paid off in the eyes of Rolovich and Stutzmann, who confirmed that as of Monday, Uahinui is the third quarterback on the depth chart behind McDonald and Cordeiro, despite the Rainbow Warriors having a pair of scholarship quarterbacks in true freshman Zach Daniel and Boone Abbott.
“Incredible improvement in two years. If we were having this interview last year, we wouldn’t think we could get out of a game with Justin,” Rolovich said. “The decision-making wasn’t all there, his timing in the offense wasn’t all there. To his credit, he kept working on it, never complains and now he’s more than a functional quarterback. It’s a good lesson in hard work and determination.
“It started popping in spring. He started showing up and his balls were catchable, his timing was good. He was playing within the offense. There’s moments where it was like ‘oh, Justin threw that?’ This fall camp, he’s been right on that same path.”
Rolovich also appreciates the soft-spoken Uahinui’s locker-room presence as one of the Hawaii natives on the team.
“I think he really enjoys being a part of this program. He has Hawaiian heritage and I think he has a more of a deeper meaning being here,” he said. “That feeling leeches on to other teammates, especially guys who aren’t from here. They’re able to go to him with questions about the culture.”
Two years later, Uahinui’s leap of faith in staying home seems to have been a smart decision. Nihon’s team was banned from playing the 2018 season due to a controversial hit that led to an investigation and ouster of head coach Masato Uchida.
Uahinui hasn’t seen the field in an official game for the ‘Bows yet, but he’s impressed in fall camp scrimmages. In the team’s first controlled scrimmage at Aloha Stadium on Aug. 3, he found James Phillips for a long touchdown.
“The past two years, I’ve been on the scout team,” Uahinui said. “This summer, I’ve really worked hard to get into the playbook and learn the plays and the defenses and just know it. Not just to know the plays, but to understand them.”
Uahinui’s long-awaited debut is likely to happen this season. And when it does, he’ll take the field knowing he earned the opportunity.
“He’s put in the work. He’s gotten a lot better. I know we feel comfortable with him if he has to go in and get us through the game right now. I think we’re in a good spot,” Stutzmann said. “Some things in the scrimmages he’s done well, there’s some other things where I think he’s gotta speed up his decision process.
“But we feel confident in him and if he’s the No. 3 guy and he has to go into the game, then shoot, we’re gonna get it done.”
UPDATE: On Tuesday, Stephen Tsai reported that Uahinui received a scholarship.
— Stephen Tsai (@StephenTsai) August 14, 2019