Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
A decade of struggles continued in 2012. The success of the 2013 season ultimately hinges on this unit taking a giant step forward. Will this be the year that it finally happens, or will we look back in December and once again lament on the performance of the line?
2013 Spring Previews
3/1 Offensive Line
Husky fans were treated to offensive line play that was consistently solid and often times great in the Don James era, and that trend mostly continued under Jim Lambright and the first part of the Rick Neuheisel tenure. The Dawgs placed 18 linemen on All-American teams from 1975 to 2000.Six of them won the Morris Trophy as the Pac 10 conference lineman of the year. Many others were named as all-conference players. But since that Rose Bowl run in 2000, the offensive line has mostly been a source of frustration for Dawg fans, and has been the unit that leads the offense in "Most Finger Pointings Received" since the turn of the century. 2012 was supposed to be the year that the tide began to turn, and from January to April, things were looking pretty good, with four starters expected back from the 2011 season. We all know how that turned out.....
Things started off poorly when it was announced during spring practices that Colin Porter was forced to give up football with 2 years of eligibility remaining due to degenerative shoulder issues. Erik Kohler then suffered a dislocated knee cap early in fall camp that would ultimately resurface in the second game and cost him the remainder of the season. Ben Riva earned the starting right tackle position in the fall, but broke his right forearm in the first half of the first game, and didn't play again until Game 7. And Colin Tanigawa tore an ACL for the second consecutive season, also in the second game against LSU, and missed the remainder of the season. Of the four returning starters that were supposed to change the fates of the line, only Drew Schaeffer ended up starting more than two games. Ouch. Add in the Riva injury, and it's very clear that the injuries of 2012 played a large part in the dysfunction we all saw play out on the field.
Aside from the injuries, the bad news with this unit was that aside from the Portland State game, it never showed anything even resembling a consistent ability to protect the passer. Whether under center or in the shotgun, Keith Price never had the luxury of time in the pocket, or even much of a pocket within which to work. The Huskies were tied for 102nd in the nation in sacks allowed at just under 3 per game (an interesting side note: That number was only "bad" enough to tie them for 8th in the Pac 12 with Arizona State - Cal, UCLA, Colorado, and WSU all surrendered more sacks than did the Dawgs). The combination of poor blocking, a struggling Price, and a green receiving corps kept the Husky air attack grounded all season.
The good news is that from the Stanford game on, the line showed that they could get the job done in the running game. They paved the way for Bishop Sankey to put up one of the top five single season rushing yards gained in Husky history, and put up a respectable 5.0 yard per carry. And for all of the lineup musical chairs this unit played in the first half of the season, with a different starting lineup in each of the first six games, they at the very least were able to gain some continuity at the end of the season, with the same starting lineup in the last seven outings. Six linemen made their first starts in 2012 (Micah Hatchie, Ben Riva, James Atoe, Mike Criste, Shane Brostek, and Dexter Charles). At the very least, the experience gained in 2012 should help the 2013 line. As Kermit the Frog so aptly said, it ain't easy bein' green.
Subtractions: The only loss - period - in this unit is Drew Schaefer. A three year starter at center, Schaefer probably didn't have the senior season he or Husky fans expected. How much of it was due to his own play and how much was due to his having to compensate for the youth and inexperience around him, we'll never know. No matter what, losing that kind of experience hurts.
Additions: Nathan Dean, Jake Eldrenkamp, Cory Fuavai, and the enigmatic Taylor Hindy lose their redshirts heading into spring, as well as a highly praised walk-on in Michael Kneip. Of these four, Eldrenkamp seemed to earn the most acclaim working on the scout team, and he was actually running with the number two offense for many of the Las Vegas Bowl practices.
The Huskies have played far too many true freshmen on the offensive line in the last decade. Last season was no exception, with Shane Brostek burning a year of elgibility with little to show for it. I sincerely hope that each of the three linemen signed for the class of 2013 redshirts.
Spring Depth Chart
These are my WAG's for the end of spring, which assumes that Kohler will make it back by the end of the practices, that Tanigawa will not, and that Brostek plays on offense (all from Sarkisian's chat on the Seattle Times this week).
Mike Criste OR Erik Kohler OR Shane Brostek
Mike Criste OR James Atoe
Mike Criste OR James Atoe
There are questions at just about every position, and it's probably also the group that has the players that shift positions the most. I definitely think that Sarkisian and Cozzetto are going to use the spring to experiment with different groupings, and with different guys at different positions. Virtually nothing is off the table for these 15 practices. It's almost impossible to project how the new guys are going to factor into the lineup. So I won't be the least bit surprised if the actual post-spring depth chart looks entirely different than this. In fact I'll be shocked - SHOCKED, I say - if it does.
Three Questions Heading into Spring
Given the nature of the issues that surround the offensive line, it's difficult to narrow this down to 3 questions, and to keep the focus just to this spring. But I'll give it a shot. Add your own questions and answers in the comments section...
1. Who's going to play center?
Mike Criste was listed as the backup center heading into the 2012 season, and Siosifa Tufunga was the backup at the end of the season. At various times, both Erik Kohler and Colin Tanigawa have also been mentioned as possible candidates for the position. Tanigawa is obviously out, and Kohler won't be back until midway through the spring at the earliest. Criste played his way into a starting role at guard, so I'd imagine that's his spot to lose at least for now. Tufunga seems to be the most likely candidate to get the starting nod at least initially. But call it a hunch - if Brostek isn't at least a guy that looks like he's going to get playing time at guard, it wouldn't surprise me if Cozzetto and Sarkisian gave him a look at center. Maybe it's just the bloodlines, but it seems like this unit is in need of getting its best players on the field, and Brostek has the football IQ to handle the position by all accounts.
2. Can anyone step up and challenge the incumbents at tackle?
It seems like just about every recruit the Huskies have signed on the line during the Cozzetto/Sarkisian era has been deemed to fit best on the interior of the line. It's good to finally hear that a guy projected to play inside by the experts is actually making some hay at tackle (Eldrenkamp). Competition is a great thing in improving performance. I think it's key that someone emerges this spring to push Hatchie and Riva in particular. But really, everybody that heads into the spring as a starter on the line needs to feel the heat from the guy behind him, and not just from the position coach.
3. Can Cozzetto develop these guys?
This is a far-reaching, overarching question that goes well beyond this spring. But the answer begins starting on March 5th. Once Nick Holt was FIRED!, Cozzetto assumed the mantle of the coach garnering the most heat from fans. It's interesting to note that, heading into year 5, he's the only one still employed at the same position from the original Sarkisian regime. So there's the very real (likely, even) possibility that us fans don't have any idea what we're talking about. There's also no doubt that the offensive line has been the weakest link of the offense for the last four years. Just looking at the ratings by the so-called experts, this isn't a collection of world-beaters. But it isn't a collection of scrubs, either. The simple fact of the matter is that it's time for them to perform - better than they have to date. By not doing anything as far as coaching changes this offseason, Sarkisian has said that he thinks Cozzetto is the guy to lead this unit going forward. So, the heat falls on Sarkisian for the line this year if it doesn't perform. No scapegoats. But the fact is that Cozzetto is charged with making them better. Let's say a prayer and hope he can do it. Oh, and LET THE DEBATES BEGIN!!!!
Key Position Battles
All of 'em.
I don't think any position is more important than another with the line. Cohesiveness as a unit is crucial, and the fact of the matter is that nobody has performed well enough to feel comfortable with where he's at. The injuries have cost time to some key players, but the reality is that neither Tanigawa or Kohler has performed well enough to simply have playing time given to him. The offense and the defense are both in the same position heading into this spring. There's enough talent behind the lines to win, and win pretty big. But both are bound to fail without improved play in the trenches.
Look, I have confidence in Keith Price. I don't think he's a world beater all on his own, but he's shown enough to me personally that he isn't the weak link in the Husky offense. And as bad as I thought the receivers were in 2012, it's an easier to position to fix both with young talent and some experience. But the line....Eeesh. The line scares the bejeezus out of me. I think there's enough talent there to be (at worst) a middle-of-the-road Pac 12 unit. And really, I'm not totally convinced that the issue is just coaching. But there's no doubt, to me anyway, that this offense is only going to go as far as the line takes it. And for that to happen, we need to see a substantial increase in its performance. However they get there, they just need to get better. Starting March 5th.
SAY WHO?!!?!?!! SAY WHAT!!!!!