Hard core football fans understand the importance of winning the battle in the trenches, and eyes were squarely focused on the Husky offensive line heading into the 2013 season. The offense had taken a big step back in 2012, and while there were reasons to think the skill positions would bounce back, they needed improved line play to really boost the offense.
To improve their chances for success, the offense was shifted full-time to a HUNH spread attack; the thought was that speeding up the game would allow the OL to wear down the opposition, and by practicing and playing at a lightning fast tempo, they would be among the better-conditioned units in the country. As well, the passing offense continued to expand their horizontal attack to provide ways for the QB to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
Based on the overall offensive numbers, you'd have to rate this change a big success. But how much of that was due to the OL improving? As a run-blocking unit, they had finished the 2012 season on an upswing, and they continued that in 2013, paving the way for a huge season for Bishop Sankey and allowing the Husky run game to finish 23rd nationally in yards per attempt. The pass-blocking on the other hand was not so good in 2012, and while they improved in 2013, they were still below-average, ranking 82nd in the country and 9th in the conference in sack percentage.
This is a group under a lot of scrutiny, and the good news is there are reasons to be optimistic that they'll make the jump from below-average to above-average this year, and they could very well be the most experienced OL unit in the country in 2014.
- Pass blocking: 30 sacks allowed, 413 pass attempts, 7.3% sack percentage (82nd nationally)
- Run blocking: 610 rushes, 3,107 yards, 5.09 ypr (23rd nationally), 239.0 ypg (15th nationally)
Players lost: Erik Kohler (injury retirement)
Players returning: James Atoe (RS-Sr), Mike Criste (RS-Sr), Micah Hatchie (RS-Sr), Ben Riva (RS-Sr), Colin Tanigawa (RS-Sr), Shane Brostek (Jr), Dexter Charles (RS-Jr), Siosifa Tufunga (RS-Jr), Jake Eldrenkamp (RS-So), Cory Fuavai (RS-So), Taylor Hindy (RS-So), Dane Crane (RS-Fr), Andrew Kirkland (RS-Fr), Coleman Shelton (RS-Fr)
Incoming players: Devin Burleson (Fr), Matt James (Fr), Jesse Sosebee (Fr), John Turner (Fr)
A Look Ahead:
Some folks that looked at the roster over the last few years pointed to the 2014 season as one where the program could really make a strong run at the conference championship, and a big reason for that optimism was seeing the returning experience on the offensive line. There are likely few - if any - programs that return as many starts along their OL as do the Huskies: 124.
There are two big questions for this group heading into the Spring: A) How will they adapt to their new coaching with Chris Strausser replacing Dan Cozzetto, and will that lead to an improvement in their pass blocking? B) Can they develop some quality depth as they look toward the 2015 season when they will see five of their top six OL lost to graduation?
This group has done fairly well in run-blocking, though they still are not a unit you can feel totally comfortable with in a 4th and inches scenario. Where they've really struggled is in pass-protection, so it comes as good news that Strausser's units at Boise State were annually among the best in the country at keeping their QB upright. Can he mold this crew to find similar success?
Developing depth will also be critical for the future of the program. The vaunted "Cascade Front" recruiting class is entering their final year of eligibility, and it will be interesting to see which younger players step up to challenge the starters. Charles might be the best player on the line already - will we see big pushes from guys like Eldrenkamp, Crane and Shelton? Will guys like Tufunga and Fuavai show something, or are will they continue to be buried on the depth? What will we see out of guys like Hindy, Brostek and Kirkland?
Steve Sarkisian and crew spent each of the last five years trying to rebuild the numbers in the Husky offensive line. Indeed, the legit criticism of the UW o-line has been less about the quantity at the various positions and more about the development of those numbers by Cozzetto and co. While the injuries have been unfortunate and have plagued this unit over the years, there are several reasons to be bullish about this particular class.
The most important thing is that this year, Chris Petersen will have the benefit of five seniors at the top of his depth chart. Correction. Five redshirt seniors. That's huge.
With the heady Mike Criste anchoring the center of the line and an expectation that Jonathan Smith will continue to run a version of the HUNH offense, Husky fans should expect this unit to be proficient in both pass blocking and run blocking. Even if you count Micah Hatchie as a "disappointment" based on his recruiting hype, he's still coming into this year as a big, strong, and nimble three-year starter and he's joined by tough-guy Ben Riva who is almost as experienced on the other end. Dexter Charles, the most prone to mistakes of last year's starters, now has a full season under his belt facing Pac 12 d-lines and should be all the better after more seasoning from the new staff. Layer in the experienced depth that has had time to mature - talents like Dane Crane and Jake Eldrenkamp - and in 2014, we should finally see a top 5 in the Pac type of offensive line out of this UW football team.
I imagine that this group could benefit from a coaching change more than any other single unit on the Husky team. While I doubt practice would truly be described as "fun" for any of the players on the team, watching their teammates practice with guys like Peter Sirmon or Marques Tuiasosopo must've looked like a trip to Club Med for the offensive linemen compared to spending two hours being cussed at and berated by Dan Cozzetto. That change in attitude could help them as much as any teaching that Strausser might be able to offer.
There's as much experience and depth on the offensive line as there's been in a decade or more. Now we have to see how much production can actually be gleaned from the talent at hand. There's reasons for optimism, particularly along the interior of the line with Criste, Charles, and hopefully a year-healthier Tanigawa. While Micah Hatchie has been a popular whipping boy for Husky fans the last two seasons, I think he finished the season playing better than he was at the beginning of the year. He, Charles, and Criste all were all conference honorable mention. That ain't nothin'. But both of the tackle positions are less settled than either guard or center.
Speculating on position changes and a depth chart is difficult with a coaching staff change, and particularly at the offensive line. Assuming Petersen and Smith stick with a HUNH, they may look for their offensive linemen to mesh with the skill players in a different manner than the previous staff. They may emphasize different attributes from the linemen on the field and in the weight room. It's going to be very interesting to watch how this unit looks at the beginning of spring compared to the end, but I suspect it's going to be a fairly fluid position group through the first part of fall camp.