Norm Chow knew recruiting quarterback Max Wittek to Hawaii was a long shot.
“The Mountain West could not get a guy like that out of high school,” the Rainbow Warriors head coach Chow said at Mountain West media days in Las Vegas. “He’s a Power Five guy, Pac-12 guy.”
And indeed, Wittek went from a prep powerhouse in Southern California, Mater Dei, to a college powerhouse, USC. The highly touted prospect becoming a Trojan was just natural. He followed the same path as USC greats Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley, the latter of whom Wittek was once the heir apparent.
The natural fit, however, wasn’t to be. Wittek lost a drawn-out quarterback competition to Cody Kessler, the Trojans’ returning starter and Heisman Trophy contender.
With one season of eligibility remaining, Wittek has only the 2015 season to make his mark at the college level and prove himself as an NFL prospect.
“This is it,” Wittek said frankly.
Seeing the opportunity ahead of him, Chow said, motivates Wittek to have a big campaign for the Rainbow Warriors.
“He’s anxious to go,” Chow said. “This is kind of the second chance.”
Wittek’s motivation already manifested in what Chow described as a “leaner” physique than in the quarterback’s USC days. Wittek still goes about 240 pounds at around 6-foot-3, but his work in the weight room cultivated a cut frame that almost makes him look like a linebacker.
Wittek’s decision to transfer after the 2013 season narrowed the odds on Chow’s long shot considerably. After rumored flirtations with Florida and Texas, Wittek landed at Hawaii and has discovered a new natural fit.
“It was coach Chow that did for me,” Wittek explained. “Everything that he brings to the table, from the mentor standpoint and just his pedigree… If he tells a scout you’re the real deal, that means something.
“And just the history of [Hawaii] airing it out,” he added. “That didn’t hurt.”
Chow boasts a rich background working with quarterbacks, including Wittek’s fellow Mater Dei alum and 2004 Heisman winner Leinart.
Meanwhile, Hawaii’s track record of prolific passers includes one-time NCAA passing yardage leader Timmy Chang, and a fellow Mater Dei alum who made good on his own second chance as a Rainbow Warrior: Colt Brennan.
Brennan landed at Hawaii after his dismissal from Colorado in the mid-2000s, and developed into a Heisman finalist in the Rainbow Warriors’ historic 2007 season.
Setting the bar at an invitation to New York City and a spot in the Sugar Bowl may be asking a little much of Wittek. Most in and around the Hawaii program would probably settle for the program’s first bowl appearance since 2010.
But the quarterback’s new teammates offered him a tremendous vote of confidence.
“The guys voted him the [team] captain without any hesitation,” Chow said.
Earning a captainship without ever taking a snap is impressive, but Wittek didn’t receive it before making himself a part of the Hawaii locker room.
“It happened pretty naturally,” he said of his nomination as captain. “Last season, I went to all the games because I just wanted the team to know I cared.”
Showing care is one thing; preaching to Hawaii as it endured a tough 4-9 season, which included five one-possession defeats.
“Who wants to listen to the guy who can’t even play?” Wittek asked rhetorically. “So I just sat back and built relationships…then just kind of stepped into that role [as captain] and it worked pretty nicely.”
Wittek’s presence through a season full of heartache was obviously not lost on his new teammates. Offensive lineman Ben Clarke said the combination of Wittek’s respect within the locker room and impressive play once he became eligible for practices made the decision to name him captain easy.
“It was important to see him there at every game,” Clarke said. “Then going into spring ball, getting to play with him, everybody could see what he could do, but he already knew everyone.”
One of the Rainbow Warriors with whom Wittek’s become acquainted is wide receiver Marcus Kemp, a 6-foot-5 standout capable of pushing Colorado State All-American Rashard Higgins as the Mountain West’s most productive pass-catcher.
Kemp will be one of Wittek’s favorite targets come fall, the quarterback said, and the duo will get ample opportunity to connect with Hawaii employing a revised offensive outlook under coordinator Don Bailey.
Bailey brings an up-tempo style Wittek calls “controlled speed,” which last season produced the Football Championship Subdivision’s leading passer in Idaho State quarterback Justin Arias.
Hawaii’s new offensive dynamics make for a natural fit with Wittek. The stage is set for the quarterback to flourish as his lofty high school credentials suggested he would.
With an impressive enough season, Wittek could reunite with Kessler during the NFL Draft next spring — something his former Trojan teammate is rooting for.
“Obviously we were competing for the same spot. We weren’t dumb; we knew going back and forth one of us was going to get [the starting USC job] and one of us was going to leave,” Kessler said. “I just talked to him last week… he’s doing a really good job. I told him I wish him nothing but the best.
“We’re still good friends to this day. It was business,” Kessler added.
Wittek's ability to build relationships is indeed the cornerstone of his second-chance season. His destiny may not have been USC and the Pac-12, but his relationship with Chow and the Hawaii roster could see Wittek finally shine in the Mountain West.