Last year there was reason for optimism when projecting the offensive line play for 2012. Sure, the OL lost LT Senio Kelemete to the NFL draft, but they had returning starters in C Drew Schaefer, G Colin Porter and T Erik Kohler. Another starter in G Colin Tanigawa was expected to return from a knee injury, and there were a number of young guys in the depth that had gotten a taste of playing time in T Micah Hatchie, G James Atoe and T Ben Riva.
Fast forward to the end of the season and things looked much different. Porter had to retire prior to fall camp due to a degenerative shoulder condition; Kohler suffered a dislocated kneecap in fall camp that recurred against LSU, costing him the remainder of the season; Tanigawa's return was cut short when he suffered another knee injury before the Portland State game that cost him the 2012 season; and Riva earned the starting job at right tackle for the opener against San Diego State, only to be felled by a broken forearm that cost him the next five games.
So how did this patchwork line do?
Kirk: I'd love to give two grades, one for run blocking and one for pass blocking. I'll start with the good first - as the season progressed, the young pups showed they had some talent at opening holes for the running game. After a lot of mixing & matching to fill the holes left from injury, Cozzetto settled on a line of Hatchie, Dexter Charles, Schaefer, Mike Criste and Riva after experimenting with Atoe and true frosh Shane Brostek in the starting mix. They found their groove in the run game - as much as I like Bishop Sankey, there's no denying that he was given some nice blocking at times to help him get those 1,439 yards - better blocking than Chris Polk enjoyed. They weren't dominant in this phase, but they showed promise that they could be pretty good as they continue to develop.
Now the bad - the pass blocking was terrible. They probably weren't the worst pass-blocking unit in the country, but they were close. While WSU gave up more sacks per game, the Cougs actually gave up less sacks per pass attempt than the Huskies. Colorado was worse than both, but the Husky OL was clearly in the bottom 10% in FBS in pass-blocking. When QB Keith Price wasn't getting sacked, he was getting hurried, flushed from the pocket and frequently knocked down just after releasing the ball. You can lay a lot of the blame for Price's disappointing season at the feet of the OL - he discovered early in the season that he had little time to throw, and his lack of confidence in his pass protection led to happy feet, not going through his progressions, poor footwork on his throws and changes in the play-calling as Sark had to figure out ways to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
It's not terribly surprising that they struggled given the terrible luck they had with injuries, but the bottom line is they weren't getting the job done, and the coaches have to do a better job stocking the cupboards with talent (and enough of it to weather injuries) and coaching up the talent they have. They won't get to the level of success we demand out of this program without improved play from this group.
Ryan Priest: Ah, now we're cooking with gas. No unit of the Husky football team caused fans' collective blood pressure to skyrocket the way the offensive line did, with their inability to provide Keith Price with any semblance of time to find receivers downfield. Their general ineptitude caused Steve Sarkisian to more or less abandon any hope of drawing up five- or seven-step-drop passing plays, and for a coach who has shown an absolute affinity for the play action in his four years on Montlake, it's remarkable how little the Huskies utilized those types of misdirection plays, due almost solely to the inability of the line to provide time for such plays to develop.
What I've always tried to stress regarding this unit, though, has been its absolute patchwork quality for virtually the entire 2012 campaign. Remember that at the start of the season, the general thinking was that the starting offensive linemen would be, from left, Micah Hatchie, Colin Tanigawa, Drew Schaefer, Erik Kohler and Ben Riva. Of that group, as Dawg fans are well aware, only Hatchie and Schaefer escaped the season uninjured, which forced promising-but-still-not-ripe players like James Atoe, Mike Criste, Ross Dolbec, Dexter Charles and Shane Brostek into action before they were ready to compete against Pac-12 competition.
As many of you have been happy to remind me, injuries are an inherent part of the game, and the Huskies' linemen failed by any objective measure to fulfill a "next man up" credos. But I offer that information as an explanation, not an excuse; with an additional year's development for those players, there's no reason to think that Washington won't be more proficient at protecting Keith Price in the coming season. If nothing else, the law of averages dictates that they're at least likely to be healthier than they were in 2012. A surprisingly strong performance in the run game saves this group from complete disgrace, but there's no question that the offensive line's poor play was one of the major keys to Washington's season-long offensive collapse, and they'll be judged accordingly.
Jack Follman: It would be easy to give these guys a D, but they deserve some credit for dealing with injuries and producing a 1,400-yard rusher in Sankey. Their pass protection was an F though.
Jeffrey Gorman: What can be said about the offensive line that hasn't been discussed and dissected since the season's end? Their play, simply put, was bad. It should not be overlooked however, their improvements in run blocking. Bishop Sankey doesn't run for 1,400+ yards and 16 touchdowns if someone isn't opening holes for him to run through. Coming in at 84th nationally in rushing offense averaging 142 yards per game is mediocre, and the offensive line still could improve in this regard. Where they really struggled all season was in pass protection. Redshirt sophomores Ben Riva and Micah Hatchie both showed glimpses of being solid bookend Pac-12 caliber tackles, but more often than not they struggled protecting Keith Price. The unit allowed 38 sacks, which is nearly 3 per game.
Injuries can be pointed to as the reason for the offensive line's woes. Remember when they expected to return 4 starters from last year? The medical retirement of Colin Porter, and early season injuries to Colin Tanigawa and Erik Kohler derailed any hope of having a seasoned and experience line to lead the offense. According to Sarkisian's latest reports, Kohler and Tanigawa are both expected back for the fall, last year being used as a medical redshirt year. I would temper expectations about Tanigawa as he's coming off a second ACL tear. This forced young players like redshirt freshman Dexter Charles and true freshman Shane Brostek into action much before they were ready, and their played showed it. They did show glimpses of being great someday, notably Charles who was extremely physical and aggressive taking on defensive linemen. Brostek on the other hand eventually moved to the defensive line because of injuries to that unit, and at this point it is up in the air where he will end up.
Overall, there is not much to say about the offensive line except that aside from their decent run blocking, they played quite poorly through an injury ravaged season. Keith Price's and the offense's play suffered greatly as a result, and was no where near as explosive and high scoring as 2011. Inexperience at wide receiver and an injury to James Johnson also came into play, but simply put the offensive line was severely holding this offense back. Of the incoming freshman, expect redshirts for tackle prospects Andrew Kirkland and Coleman Shelton. Center Dane Crane is physically strong enough already to play at this level, but only expect him to start if Tanigawa, Kohler, or even Mike Criste can't grab a hold of the center spot.
It's not all doom and gloom, as young players like Dane Crane and Dexter Charles play with that physical edge and nastiness you like to see in offensive linemen, and should be anchors of the line for years to come. However, it was a very rough season with lots of work left to be done. Expect the offensive line to be the most heavily scrutinized heading into spring ball.