Washington's offensive line woes look to have no quick fix

From Ted Miller's 2012 spring football position reviews:

Washington: Three starters are back, though injury issues left a lot of questions this spring, when the beleaguered defense was mostly in control. Will guard Colin Tanigawa, tackle Erik Kohler and center Drew Schaefer all come back healthy for preseason camp? Further, it's worth noting that the Huskies gave up 34 sacks last season, second most in the conference. And there's no Chris Polk to produce yards often on his own. There are plenty of grounds for hope and concern here.

Miller proved to be more prescient than even he knew when he made the above statement in July. After the end of the track meet that was the 2011 Alamo Bowl, Washington fans could at least console themselves in the knowledge that with a few notable exceptions like Polk, Devin Aguilar and Jermaine Kearse, the Huskies' offense returned mostly intact. Perhaps most promising was the prospect of an offensive line that returned four of five starters, with only left tackle Senio Kelemete heading to the NFL; at the time, left guard Colin Tanigawa (a two-star recruit), center Drew Schaefer (three stars), right guard Colin Porter (four stars) and right tackle Erik Kohler (four stars) were all expected to headline one of Washington's most experienced offensive units.

Sadly, it was not to be. In the span of six months, Washington has gone from that original optimistic prediction to possibly finding itself with Schaefer as the sole remaining piece of that projected quartet at the opening of Pac-12 play. In April, Sarkisian confirmed reports that Porter, considered by many to be Washington's best lineman, would have to retire from the sport due to degenerative arthritis in both of his shoulders. Early in fall camp, Kohler (who shifted to right guard following Porter's retirement) dislocated his kneecap, and repeated that injury on Saturday during Washington's game at LSU; he's expected to be out for a month or more until the injury heals completely. Tanigawa missed the back nine of the 2011 season after tearing his ACL in the Oregon State game, and rumor has it that he missed practice today due to what the indispensable Bob Condotta calls "a serious knee injury." Add in the fact that new right tackle Ben Riva suffered a broken forearm in his first career start against San Diego State, and you end up with a unit that is in utter tatters compared to what fans originally expected it to be.

There's no doubt that this unexpected upheaval in available personnel is a major factor in the offense's inability to see the end zone in seven quarters, after averaging 33.4 points per game in 2011. Compared to that lofty standard, Washington's offense in 2012 has been nothing short of a disaster: Through two games, they average 2.4 yards per rush and just 127.8 yards per game, and have logged one rushing and one receiving touchdown.

Adding to the team's woes is the fact that Washington has failed to effectively recruit offensive linemen the last several years. In 2009, the Huskies only signed a single offensive tackle, Daniel Mafoe, a junior college prospect who is no longer with the team; the 2010 class was a noticeable improvement in that it included a number of promising recruits such as Micah Hatchie, James Atoe, Mike Criste, Tanigawa, Kohler, Porter and Riva, but those players have either battled chronic injury or are just starting to come into their own. Few positions in football require as much maturation as the offensive line, and there's no doubt that most of Washington's current linemen require at least another year of development before they're ready to play with the big boys of Stanford and LSU, as was made abundantly clear on Saturday. The pain of missing out on local 2012 prospects Zach Banner, Joshua Garnett and Walker Williams is magnified even further in this light.

Unless conventional wisdom proves wrong and Washington's backups prove to be a revelation, UW's fans should begin to prepare themselves for the very real possibility of staying home for the holidays this season, as missing bowl eligibility with a losing record might be unavoidable consequences of having an unseasoned group in the trenches. Without a salty group of lineman and a bruiser of a tailback like Chris Polk, Washington immediately becomes a one-dimensional team, and opposing defenses will no doubt adjust their schemes to contain Washington's two biggest offensive threats, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins and WR Kasen Williams.

As if that prognosis isn't dire enough, here's another prospect to that I know will rile up Husky Nation: If the worst comes to pass and Washington finishes the year with a record of 4-8 or something similar, I'm prepared to give Sarkisian a pass. Few teams can cope with injuries as severe as the seemingly epidemic spate that the Huskies are currently undergoing (if the rumors of Tanigawa are true, then that's two of the top three running backs, a starting defensive end and a starting offensive linemen who have suffered season-ending knee injuries in the span of a month), and it would be simply irresponsible to hold the Dawgs to lofty expectations made in the preseason in the face of such adversity. No one is enticed with such an abysmal outcome for the season, of course, but since Saturday's beatdown at the hands of the Tigers, there's been a small but growing chorus of calls for Sarkisian's job if the Huskies don't improve upon their 2011 win total, or for him to at least enter 2012 on the hot seat.

To those fans, I say: Take a deep breath, and take the long view. Washington has spent the last three years bringing in top-25 recruiting classes and redshirting as many of its players as possible. There's no doubt in my mind, and in the minds of most fans, that Sarkisian and Co. have the program moving in the right direction (as evidenced by the current 2013 commitments of national recruits like Troy Williams and Demorea Stringfellow), and merely creating chatter about ejecting him and his staff sends the message to potential players that Washington isn't a safe program to come play for. Patience is a virtue, and that's information that Husky fans might find maddeningly difficult to keep in perspective as what increasingly appears to be a very, very tough season trudges onward.

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