Chris Petersen has been trying to build an elite offensive line at Washington since he arrived in 2014.
So far, most would agree its been “pretty good.”
Good enough to get a rhythm going against the Cougs every year. Good enough to win a lot of games in the Pac-12. Good enough to help make Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin two of the most prolific players in Husky football history.
But it’s never been a dominant offensive line. Not often enough.
Inconsistency has plagued UW’s O-Line the past few seasons, with inexplicable lapses leading to some awful offensive possessions (ASU ‘17; Cal, Colorado, Utah last season). Scott Huff has been the Huskies’ offensive line and running game coordinator the past two seasons, and in his third year back with Chris Petersen (Huff spent 2006-2013 under Petersen at Boise State), he looks to find that consistency while filling out the Husky offensive line with nothing but All-Conference caliber players.
UW Athletics Spring Roster: Offensive Line
|Jaxson Kirkland||51||6'7"||320 lbs||SO|
|Troy Fautanu*||55||6'4"||296 lbs||FR|
|Nick Harris||56||6'1"||302 lbs||SR|
|Henry Roberts||59||6'6"||316 lbs||SR|
|Noah Hellyer*||62||6'1"||259 lbs||R-FR|
|Cole Norgaard||63||6'5"||302 lbs||SO|
|Henry Bainivalu||66||6'6"||319 lbs||SO|
|Chase Skuza*||67||6'6"||309 lbs||SO|
|M.J. Ale*||68||6'8"||349 lbs||R-FR|
|Will Pliska*||69||6'5"||295 lbs||R-FR|
|Jared Hilbers||70||6'7"||305 lbs||SR|
|Trey Adams||72||6'8"||306 lbs||SR|
|Gage Harty*||73||6'4"||267 lbs||R-FR|
|Corey Luciano*||74||6'3"||274 lbs||R-SO|
|Luke Wattenberg||76||6'5"||300 lbs||JR|
|Julius Buelow*||77||6'8"||341 lbs||FR|
|Matteo Mele*||78||6'5"||298 lbs||R-FR|
|Victor Curne*||79||6'3"||310 lbs||R-FR|
The Huskies entered spring football with what appears to be five set starters on the offensive line: LT Trey Adams, LG Luke Wattenberg, C Nick Harris, RG Jaxson Kirkland, RT Jared Hilbers. If Trey Adams is healthy (which he claims he never truly will be again), UW boasts three first-team All-Conference caliber linemen with Adams, Harris, and probably the team’s most dominant blocker in redshirt sophomore Jaxson Kirkland.
The other two spots are held by players who have a lot of experience, but Wattenberg and Hilbers are not on the same level with the other three. The junior Wattenberg looked really overmatched against Ohio State, and might be the weak link on this offensive line. That’s based on what we saw last year. This is a new season.
In The Middle
Sometimes when I watch senior center Nick Harris, I think “This guy isn’t big enough, he isn’t strong enough; he gets beat too much.” I stand by that analysis, but then he snaps the ball from the right hash and busts his ass out the the left hash to make the key block on a tunnel screen. That’s just not something many centers can do. Harris is a terrific player, and if he needs a little double-team help from one of his interior mates against a particularly strong DT or NT, we can live with that.
Jaxson Kirkland came out of nowhere last season to start all 14 games at the right guard position, and this dude is a monster. Unlike Wattenberg, Kirkland had a really strong game in the Rose Bowl, and never looked overmatched physically against Ohio State. At 6’7” and 320 lbs, he moves really well and recognized when a defender came free with far more consistency than the four-year starter to his right, Kaleb McGary. Even if Adams is near 100% this fall and returns to form, you can make a really strong case that #51 Jaxson Kirkland is the Huskies’ best offensive lineman entering 2019.
Wattenberg is the incumbent LG and the position is his to lose, but he will be pushed this spring and into fall camp. I like this scenario: Wattenberg improves, but massive M.J. Ale is just too good and plays himself into a starting guard position as a redshirt frosh; the way Kirkland did a year ago. Imagine a pair of 6’7” guards playing inside. The defense would never be able to find Sean McGrew.
Ale and fellow redshirt freshman Victor Curne may still be too raw, but these guys have tremendous upside. Senior Henry Roberts is in the mix as well. The left guard position might be the most important camp battle to keep an eye on.
It was great to see Trey Adams return to the team last season. Even better to see him starting in the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl. While he looked really rusty, he definitely had his moments against Ohio State and I’m encouraged that he can be a factor for this team. He’s such an athletic guy, and while he has yet to dominate in his Husky career, his size, agility, and experience make him one of the top LTs in the Pac-12. But the Huskies have to prepare for a setback with Adams, and finding the right combination to shuffle in at tackle is a must for Petersen and Huff.
Washington returns two other players with starting experience at tackle. Jared Hilbers and Henry Bainivalu will battle it out for the starting RT job, and should be given a lot of run with the first team at LT as well. Hilbers played in 12 games, Bainivalu in 14 games last season, with Hilbers getting the start at left tackle 11 times.
Another redshirt freshman to keep an eye on is the 298-pounder out of Tuscon, AZ, Matteo Mele. He’s been running with the second team at left tackle so far in spring camp, and as a guy who hasn’t been playing tackle his whole life, the trajectory is intriguing. Huff says he can play anywhere along the offensive line, so if you hear he is getting reps at LG, it’s possible they are throwing him into that competition as well.
If in fact the five players who make up the current first-string offensive line are the ones who emerge from fall camp both healthy and with their starting jobs, then it’s a question of who backs them up. When you have reserve offensive linemen with starting experience, that’s a nice luxury. The tackle positions are well stocked with an experienced backup in Bainivalu, who has played extensively on both sides. On the inside, Roberts has played 16 games in his career at both tackle and guard. At center, third year sophomore Cole Norgaard is currently the #2 behind Harris. There is some buzz that juco transfer Corey Luciano is being groomed for the center spot after Harris graduates. We will see if he is able to unseat Norgaard this spring as the backup center. Apparently a number of players have been rotating through at the center position to get as many players as possible comfortable with snapping the football.
This is a solid group. There are three potential first-team All-Pac-12 players on this offensive line, and some exciting younger players coming off redshirts who will push the current starters. The talent is deep enough that if Trey Adams does not return to form or can’t stay on the field, it’s not panic time. Getting mean, nasty, consistent play from the offensive line is something I’ve been waiting for since Petersen arrived.
Maybe this is the year.