The offensive line can be a difficult position to know how much talent and ability is coming back from one season to the next. Because of the nature of the position with five players working in unison, it is difficult to pin down just how much losing one or two players could have, or how much you should expect from those who are returning. So many around college football have used the number of returning starts to compare one team to another. Obviously, this is not a perfect stat, as it ignores a lot, but in general it seems like it provides a pretty good baseline. Phil Steele uses it annually. Handicappers factor it into their prognostications. Even the Wall Street Journal has taken note of it as a possible predictor.
Here are the UW's numbers over the past 4 seasons, spaced apart by the final season each player played:
First off, this is not a definitive anything, but I think that there are some conclusions we may be able to draw from it.
When you look at the first couple of years, you have the older guys from Ty Willingham's early recruiting coming to age and (using Phil Steele's rankings for last season) UW had the #48 and #21 most experienced offensive lines returning. But when you look at what actually happened in those seasons, it's a little bit ugly.
In 2009, eight different players started on the line, two of them had been playing on the defensive line the season prior, and one of them was a walk-on.
In 2010 there were a lot of returning starts, but the staff didn't feel like they had much other option than to play two true freshmen regularly.
By 2011 more of Sark's players started than Ty's, and the result was perhaps the best offensive line of the four year stretch despite ranking what would have been 75th nationally by Steele's 2012 numbers. This group also had four guys who started every game and great continuity, with just two games that didn't start the same five.
The 2012 group would have stood at 25th nationally had Colin Porter stayed healthy to enter the season. Without him they were 68th (Steele's numbers are a bit off). Without Colin Tanigawa and Erik Kohler -- as they were for all of Pac-12 play and 11 out of 13 games -- they would have been 112th. Nine different players started.
The point of this exercise is not to excuse the play of the line -- I would like them to have dominated and to dominate in the future as much as anybody -- but to provide an accurate context for the past four years. When you look at it, the Sarkisian era on the offensive line can be broken down into three periods. The first period is the first two years: a transition where Willingham's players were being weeded out and the talent being upgraded. The second is the second two years, a different transition where Sark's players and presumed upgraded talent entered the program, but were still too young to carry the burden.
Now we enter the final phase of the offensive line under this staff. For the first time under Sark and Dan Cozetto they return an offensive line that is experienced, not too young and (we've been told) talented. This is the first year when a hard judgement can be made about the quality of the Sark/Coz offensive line. With 81 starts returning (23rd by 2012 standards) the line should move from being a liability to being at least solid if not a strength. There is depth to weather any possible injuries, and for the first time under this staff the OL set itself in the spring without its usual mixing and matching.
If the coaches cannot get a competent line out of this 2013 group, then it seems likely that it is never going to get done. If they can get to at least middle of the conference caliber though, this team is in for a big year, because all the other pieces are there.
And as an addendum, if they can get to respectability on the OL in 2013, the 2014 team is looking to return everybody, for what could be as many as 151 offensive line starts. That would have been #1 in the country in 2012 by a wide margin. If Steve Sarkisian and Dan Cozetto can't succeed with that returning, then I'm all for shooting them out of a cannon into the sea.