There has been a lot of discussion about our offensive line play last year, Coach Cozzetto's effectiveness, our OL recruiting, and what we can expect in the future, given our recruiting. I have also seen some people on message boards worrying over Keith Price’s willingness to hold onto the ball and extend plays and whether that exposes Price (and the team) to more sack risk. I won't pretend to have all the answers, but I have done some research and thinking that perhaps can add some context to the discussion.
Keep in mind that what follows isn’t an exercise in making excuses for OL play that was, at best, mediocre.
Our "sack rate" (sacks given up divided by passing plays) wasn't very good last year overall. We gave up sacks on 7.6% of our called pass plays, which ranked 91st in the country, out of 120 teams. Adjusted for opponent quality our ranking was slightly better, at 86th.
Those numbers are somewhat skewed by the snaps that Nick Montana took. Montana was sacked 14.3% a pass play was called for him, or greater than twice as often as Price was. Given how large the disparity was I think it is fair to put most of that on Montana's shoulders, as it stands to reason his inexperience and inability to make decisions as quickly as needed contributed greatly to those sacks. Of course, it would also be natural for opponents to blitz more often when an inexperienced back-up is in at QB.
Price was sacked on 6.7% of plays where a pass play was called. That ranks slightly better; it would have been 71st in the country (unadjusted) and probably about 65th in the country adjusted for opponents (though I don't have QB splits for that data).
So it wasn't good, any way you look at it. But it was only moderately worse than average when Price was in the game.
Why might that have been? Well, certainly the line allowed pass rushers to have more success than we would have liked. That point is inarguable.
However, is it possible that Keith Price also contributed to that somewhat with his penchant for "extending plays"? I think it is. Not that I necessarily think that is a bad thing. Holding onto the ball a little longer to try and let routes develop and men come free comes with risk and reward. The risk is obvious. Sacks. The reward is that sometimes receivers do shake loose and Price was able to hit a lot of those passes, leading to completions, first downs and touchdowns.
The interesting thing is that despite all the sacks we gave up, the Husky offense was considerably more efficient on passing downs and in the Red Zone than it was on "standard" downs or overall. Adjusted for opponent strength, the Husky offense ranked 24th in efficiency on passing downs, and 22nd in efficiency in the Redzone, versus 39th on standard downs and 35th overall (and those numbers include the Montana snaps, which certainly skew the passing downs result to the negative, though I'm not sure by how much).
The previous year, with Locker at QB we didn't rank much better in sack rate (6.9%, actually worse than on Price's snaps), but we were also a less efficient offense overall, and a much less efficient offense in passing situations. Locker had the ability to evade sacks by using his legs, but wasn't as successful overall as Price was in making quality plays in those situations and essentially took just as many sacks. That isn't meant to run down Locker, it only goes to point out that the interplay between sacks given up and success on passing downs is a complex one.
Coach Sarkisian has made comments that he wants to see Price get rid of the ball more quickly in certain situations. I don't take that comment as a big criticism of Price's play, however. Sark is a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to QB play and I view these comments more as fine tuning. I can recall Sarkisian having the opposite comment about Locker a couple year's ago. I also recall Locker taking that coaching point perhaps too literally at times. Eventually the coaches and Locker found something closer to a happy medium. I expect it to play out similarly with Price. I also expect Price to continue to generate his share of "no, no...YES!" moments this fall.
Finally, it bears repeating that the line last year featured Porter playing with two bad shoulders and Koehler playing out of position (after dealing with Mono, if I recall correctly) at RT. I'm not presented those as excuses, but they are useful context when thinking about the situation rationally.
Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Is that potential improvement likely to be realized? I have no idea.
What should be the strength of the line, the interior three, is a bit of a question mark due to a couple of knees. The good news is that Tanigawa’s surgically repaired knee seems to have responded well and Colin is already earning good reviews for his play in practice. The injury to Kohler’s knee is the bad news. Even if it turns out to be as minor as reported, it robs Kohler of camp reps and hurts the continuity of the line. Assuming these two large knees behave going forward, the trio in the middle of the line, anchored by Drew Schaeffer at center, should be the strength of the unit and perhaps above average relative to the rest of the conference.
The obvious and oft-discussed question marks are at the tackle spots. Starting two new tackles isn’t anybody’s version of ideal. Micah Hatchie looks set to protect Price’s blind side at the LT spot. I admit I have very little basis for it, but I have a good feeling that Hatchie will acquit himself well there. If he does, that would go a long way towards stabilizing what could be an iffy group in pass protection. I have even less knowledge and less confidence in Ben Riva at the RT spot.
In summary, there is no question that the Huskies gave up too many sacks last year. However despite those sacks, and perhaps because of Price's willingness and ability to hold onto the ball in the pocket longer than typical, UW's offense was unusually potent on passing downs and in the Red Zone. Whether the line progresses this year is going to be a function of two things, in my opinion: the general health of the line (especially Tanigawa and Koehler’s ailing knees), and the ability of the young tackles, particularly Hatchie, to provide credible play in pass protection.