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Fall Camp Position Preview: Offensive Line

Fellow Jaxson Kirkland Fan Club members, make yourself known!

Washington v Washington State
I realize the emphasis of this photo is Browning, but it’s A) a rad photo and B) a photo with two linemen in it. So, technically, it qualifies for this article.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Please, do I have to write an intro? You don’t want to read it, I don’t want to write it... Ya know what, let’s just not. We’ll all be happier this way.

Anyways, if you’ve missed them, check out our previews for quarterbacks, quarterback targets, the secondary, the defensive line, and running backs. Now for the next unit.

To the OL!

Roster Check

Offensive Line Roster 2019

Name Height Weight Class
Name Height Weight Class
Trey Adams* 6'8" 306 RSr
Luke Wattenberg* 6'5" 300 RJr
Nick Harris* 6'1 302 Sr
Jaxson Kirkland* 6'7" 320 RSo
Jared Hilbers* 6'7" 305 RSr
Troy Fautanu 6'4" 296 Fr
Henry Roberts 6'6" 313 RSr
Noah Hellyer** 6'1" 259 RFr
Cole Norgaard 6'5" 302 RSo
Henry Bainivalu 6'6" 319 RSo
Chase Skuza** 6'6" 309 RSo
MJ Ale 6'6" 349 RFr
Will Pliska** 6'5" 295 RFr
Nathaniel Kalepo 6'6" 341 Fr
Gage Harty** 6'4" 267 RFr
Corey Luciano 6'3" 274 RSo
Julius Buelow 6'8" 341 Fr^
Matteo Mele 6'5" 298 RFr
Victor Curne 6'3" 310 RFr

* indicates presumed starter
** indicates walk-on

As I’ve indicated in the table, the presumed starters (from left to right) are Trey Adams, Luke Wattenberg, Nick Harris, Jaxson Kirkland, and Jared Hilbers, although that’s not to say it would be completely shocking if one got beaten out by a few of the impressive younger candidates. Adams, Harris, and Kirkland are the three that one should have the most confidence in. And, while the former two have been well-established talents for years, I think Kirkland is likely to be All-Pac-12 this year and All-American before his time here is done. On the other side, I wouldn’t put money on either Hilbers or Wattenberg being passed up but — especially in Wattenberg’s case — if one of the younger linemen takes a big step this fall, it wouldn’t blow my mind to see them have to fight hard to keep that spot. In Hilbers’ case, he played quite well considering the position he was thrown into last year covering for Trey Adams’ injury, so that hypothetical would mean a young guy made significant strides the coaches couldn’t ignore this fall. Pretty much, if Hilbers retains his starting role, the Dawgs can feel good about their line. If Hilbers doesn’t play, they should feel even better. If that’s the case, it’s because an underclassmen has become a very good RT.

Wattenberg on the other hand is a more interesting case, in my opinion. He didn’t exactly play bad last year, he just played rather inconsistently and, as an offensive linemen, that means we mostly noticed him when he got beat or in some way screwed up. It’s my thought that his play last year was perfectly “alright.” But, on a line where the other guys have elevated their standard (and with young players beneath him on the depth chart constantly improving), “alright” stands out, obviously not in a good way. If any band is only as good as their drummer, any offense is only as good as their weakest lineman. So...

If someone loses their starting spot, who’s most likely to take it?

The hypotheticals that keep popping up in my head involve either A) a certain 2017 tackle playing fantastically this fall or B) a certain 2018 guard taking the step in a scenario where Wattenberg doesn’t improve. Of course, the latter is irrelevant if Watty does, but let’s pick it apart anyway.

In B’s case, I’m excited to look for reports of Victor Curne this fall. Curne, a 6’3” redshirt freshman guard from Texas, was a monster in his high school film and by all accounts has picked stuff up decently fast, all things considered. And based on reports from spring practice, he’s been one of the stand-out linemen. If Wattenberg continues to be inconsistent and Curne’s trajectory continues upward, he’s a tailor-made guard with a nasty streak and strong lower body. It’s probably more likely the he becomes a starter in 2020 than this year, but stagnation by Wattenberg could give him an opportunity now.

In scenario A, I’m talking, of course, about Henry Bainivalu. Bainivalu was the 2017 tackle from Skyline, and a (very good) consolation prize for missing out on Foster Sarell in-state. He’s reportedly improved steadily since arriving at UW two years ago, and played last season when injuries forced some line reshuffling.

If anybody takes Hilbers’ job — which, again, I’m not expecting — it’d be wise to put money on Bainivalu. Even besides the fact he played last year when injuries happened, reports consistently highlight his improvement and suggest he’s at a level now to be trusted with the first team. And even if he doesn’t beat Hilbers outright, he’ll likely become another Henry Roberts-type player, i.e. the “sixth man” lineman who’s trusted to sub for injuries etc. at any of the four non-center positions. Er, seventh man, I suppose, since Roberts is, after all, still around. More on that later.

Furthermore, it’s not crazy to consider that Bainivalu challenges Wattenberg for the guard spot — not Curne — despite being more of a natural tackle. While Curne is physically more suited to the position (and will probably occupy that spot in the future), Bainivalu has clearly established himself as one of the top — if not the top — linemen on the roster who isn’t currently starting.

So, Henry Roberts?

Back to the other Henry. Roberts has filled in admirably for injuries and reshuffling over the last two years or so. He’s just never quite been able to take hold of a starting position. That being said, his presence is one of the reasons Washington’s line feels like it can withstand the brutality of a full season. And, while I focused on two underclassmen as having the potential to unseat the two most vulnerable starters, Roberts shouldn’t be discounted here either.

After all, while it’s more exciting to focus on younger players and their potential, Roberts is going on his fifth year in this system, has played at both guard and tackle, and has the body type to fit in both places. His in-game experience and improvement over the last one-and-a-half years means he’s valuable not only as a sixth-man, but also as someone to push Hilbers and Wattenberg. And, especially in Wattenberg’s case, his knowledge, game experience, and physical improvement make him a genuine threat.

Regardless of whether he breaks through and becomes the classic “Petersen-player-who-puts-it-together-and-becomes-a-stud-their-senior-year” candidate, or remains a quality depth player to have on hand, Roberts makes this unit better.

Who to keep an eye out for for next year (and beyond)

This is where things get fun, since every fan’s favorite pastime is ignoring the current state of affairs in order to justify — usually in a spat of delusion — how the young players are “building for the future” and “man next year’s gonna be great*.”

The good thing is that 2019’s offensive line doesn’t have to depend on hope for the future, but can consist of a highly-functioning line now and exciting prospects for later, all at once.

There’s a handful of players to keep an eye out for. MJ Ale had fans excited for his potential since committing, what with the whole “being 6’6” and 350 lbs and a former Australian boxing champion” thing. And, from the sound of it, he’s coming along pretty quickly considering how raw he was upon arrival. Matteo Mele, the third 2018 lineman, is someone I’m personally really excited to hear about; he didn’t play offensive line until late in high school and, as an original tight end, has the requisite athleticism and good feet. It’s not a coincidence that many of the best tackles are former TEs, and Mele fits that trajectory that’s so common for players that come from that position and then excel — he wasn’t a huge lineman in high school at 6’5” and about 270, but his long limbs and frame have the frame to add weight (he’s currently at about 300) and reach to use it. Plus he’s gotten some work at center, which isn’t really common for a tackle prospect, so that’s fun.

Otherwise, the true freshmen of Julius Buelow and Nate Kalepo are long-term projects with a lower floor currently but crazy sky ceiling, while Troy Fautanu is, simply, a fantastic player who more than held his own against a couple of the best edge rushers in his class last year.

Obviously there’s more players to look out for, but my gut feels like these are the most notable until proven otherwise.

*Case in point: In 2006, my 6th grade classmates and I were talking about how hopeless this season had been, before fellow classmate and child, David, declared that “next year will be better because Jake Locker can play.” Oh, how naive we were, to think that, in 2006, it couldn’t. Possibly. Get worse.

That’s it for now with the offensive line. As always, do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.