It’s time to go toe-to-toe with the blue bloods.
Well, up until a couple of weeks ago it was. Husky fans had a lot to be excited about as Coach Huff has strung together a fantastic 4-year run of recruiting classes that includes a 2020 class that is arguably the best OL recruiting class in UW history. All of that talent, and a group of fourth-year linemen who have spent their entire careers under Huff, means that the Huskies enter this coming season with a potent blend of experience and talent. Even if we won’t get a chance to prove ourselves against Michigan, there are still things to get excited about as we could be in contention for the best OL in the conference.
Key Losses: Trey Adams, Nick Harris, & Jared Hilbers
The 2019 class of departing offensive linemen were members of some of our most highly accomplished Washington teams in the last two decades. The most notable losses among that group are 2019 bookend tackles, Trey Adams and Jared Hilbers, and second team All-American center Nick Harris. Those three starters accounted for 110 combined starts over their careers, and they’ll leave some large shoes to fill.
Trey Adams will be one of the biggest what ifs of the Petersen era with two major injuries derailing an incredibly promising early career. He was generally pretty solid at LT this past season, but it looked as though the 2017 knee injury had hampered his “dancing bear” athleticism, and the lingering effects of his 2018 back injury were sapping his functional strength. Adams still finished out his career on Montlake with another first team All-Pac-12 selection (2016 & 2019) despite never quite regaining the level of dominance that he exhibited in the 2016 season. Adams’ injuries were not without silver lining as they did open the door for others to break into the starting line up, and Hilbers was the beneficiary of that opportunity.
Hilbers performed well filling in at left tackle for most of the 2018 season in-place of Adams, and then flipped over to the right side as the starter for the entire 2019 season once Adams returned. Perhaps the biggest surprise of Hilbers’ career was the fact that he leapt fellow departing senior Henry Roberts on the depth chart despite being the lowest ranked of the 2015 trio of OTs (Adams, Roberts, and Hilbers). As a multi-year starter, Hilbers quietly put together solid back-to-back seasons at different spots on the line, which in part earned him Pro Football Focus second team All-Pac-12 honors. While Hilbers earned less recognition than Adams, their individual production was somewhat similar in 2019, and both should be considered significant but not irreplaceable losses.
Perhaps the most accomplished of the key departures, and arguably the most difficult to replace, is Nick Harris. As a largely unrecruited high schooler, Harris defied the odds and earned significant starting time during all four years of his career. After manning both LG and RG spots at times, he replaced Coleman Shelton at center during his junior and senior seasons, continuing UW’s run of all-conference success at the position. Harris was a technician bringing quick feet, sound technique, and a high football IQ to the center position. His athleticism and footwork earned him recognition as an excellent zone-blocking center (the key OL position in an outside zone scheme) and as a good pass protector, but he was limited by his size and strength. The center position is typically overlooked when assessing rosters, but his steady hand and elite skill set will be missed.
2020 Washington Huskies Offensive Linemen
|* Denotes Walk-on|
2019 UW Offensive Line Statistics
|Player||Snaps||Pressures Allowed||Tackles for Loss (Runs) Allowed||Pre-Snap Penalties||During Play Penalties||% Negative Play per Snap|
|Player||Snaps||Pressures Allowed||Tackles for Loss (Runs) Allowed||Pre-Snap Penalties||During Play Penalties||% Negative Play per Snap|
Huff has all the pieces on the roster to put together a strong OL, but he’ll still have his work cutout for him. We return 60 starts and ~45% of 2019’s OL snaps worth of experience, but the vast majority of those snaps belong to Jaxson Kirkland and Luke Wattenberg. That’s a lot of experience coming back, but we’ll still effectively be replacing all five starters now that Kirkland is kicking out to LT and Wattenberg is moving over to center. Even if they stayed at the guard spots, figuring out where guys’ talents fit together, and then getting that OL unit to gel can be tricky. Huff’s propensity to cross train players gives him a ton of options to sort through. Either way, we have seen glimpses of talent here and there to be confident that the talent development in practice should offset lost experience. Let’s take a look at where we stand along the line.
Huff has typically been a major proponent of massive bookend tackles during his tenure at UW, and on average our starting tackles have been taller than 6-6 and at least 310. The key traits here have been strong builds and long arms rather than harder-to-find elite athleticism. The techniques that Huff teaches (such as short setting vs. kick slides) allow our OTs to play the position with power and strength, and they’ve proven to be effective. We also lean heavily on scheme to help out our OTs, in both run and pass blocking, through the use of cross blocking, assignment angles, tight end combos, running back chips, etc. All of these aids help to limit the number of situations where our OTs are put in unfavorable situations,
Huff’s approach to tackle development and play should benefit the biggest move of the off-season (literally and metaphorically). Jaxson Kirkland kicking out to left tackle was initially a little puzzling given his dominant play at guard, but after a longer look, it seems to make a lot of sense. He fits Huff’s physical OT mold (he’s listed at 6-7, 322), he has some experience at tackle, and he’s already proven himself at right guard (a position that quietly might demand more athleticism than tackle, but more on that later). Kirkland was primarily a tackle in HS, and his senior tape exhibited decent quickness, power, and an understanding of how to use length that Huff likes in his tackles. It’ll still be a transition back out to the edge with it’s pass protection focus, but Kirkland has the inside track.
On the other side of the line, Huff will also be looking to replace Hilbers at RT. As far as the top contender for the job, at this point last year, I’ll admit, I had forgotten about Curne. Once I remembered he was on the roster, I had penciled him in as an interior OL based on a short and squat 6-3, 313 lb build, but somehow he’s emerged as a leading candidate. He made a surprise appearance at RT in the bowl game and performed surprisingly well out on the edge. Curne’s game is all about footwork, quickness, and mirroring agility, which are prototypical OT traits that are by no means a bad thing, but he is far outside of our typical OT mold. Huff has a record of playing unconventional line ups (Kirkland as an uber tall guard, Harris as a tiny iOL, etc.), so I suppose we shouldn’t count Curne’s size as a deal breaker.
Curne’s biggest competition, Nate Kalepo and Julius Buelow, are on the far opposite end of the size spectrum. Both Kalepo and Buelow would be huge size upgrades at tackle, standing at 6-6, 342 lbs and 6-8, 330 lbs respectively, and they lean even further into the length and strength style of tackle play. We haven’t seen either in action, so it’s hard to get a good feel for how ready they are, but Kalepo’s appearance on the two-deep as the back up LT for the bowl game should signal that he has a leg up on Buelow. Either way, Curne is my favorite to win the job.
Other linemen to keep an eye on in the tackle competitions are Troy Fautanu and Matteo Mele. Fautanu has been mentioned as a guard at times, but he was seen in HS as both an OT and an iOL prospect by several schools. His size/length and athleticism are arguably better than Curne’s, so an experiment at tackle, even as a back up, would make a lot of sense. For Mele, he’s already taken practice snaps at tackle while at UW, but he spent last year cross-training at center. Depending on how that competition shakes out, Mele may return to compete at one of the tackle spots. Even without those two working out at tackle, I expect more than enough depth for Roger Rosengarten and Sam Peacock to be able to redshirt.
Again, Huff’s preferences at the interior OL positions seem to run in contrast to positional norms, and I think the interior linemen have actually been among the most athletically versatile and active on the OL. Our heavy use of outside zone and pulling in our run game over the last few years have made lateral agility and movement ability more of a priority than pure size, strength, and power. However, Donovan’s preference for downhill power/gap concepts may signal a shift in that approach.
The leading contenders for replacing Kirkland and Wattenberg’s guard spots are Henry Bainivalu and Ulumoo “MJ” Ale. Bainivalu has been a steady presence on the two-deeps and made several starts and appearances later in the season. Originally coming in as a top 200 OT recruit, Bainivalu has found his way on the field as a tall and athletic guard like Kirkland. Bainivalu’s blend of size (6-6, 320) and athleticism (both straight-line and lateral) make him scheme versatile on paper, but his mental game held him back last season. We ask our guards to do a lot in our scheme (cross blocks, zone blocks, pulling, trapping, etc.), and Bainivalu looked lost in his assignment at times. More game and practice reps should help with the learning curve, and if it can click consistently, Bainivalu will be a stud.
Ale is largely an unknown, but he’s been a favorite development prospect of fans who have become entranced by his tantalizing potential. The freakish athleticism that was fostered by his rugby and boxing backgrounds, when paired with his gargantuan frame (6-6, 352), has the makings of a future road grader. Like Kirkland, Ale has the linear athleticism be be an effective pulling guard, and enough lateral agility to be adequate in the outside zone game, but power/gap and inside zone schemes may suit him best. The biggest limitation for Ale thus far has been his extremely limited football background, which has meant technique and fundamentals development have needed to take a deliberate pace. Pass protection, typically a harder skill to learn than run blocking, will be the key to Ale breaking into the line up. Like Kalepo, his appearances on the two-deep indicating steady progress towards playing time are why he’s considered a front runner.
Outside of the two front runners, there are a couple of possible contenders. I’ve already mentioned Fautanu as a dark horse contender that I really like in the tackle competition, but he also has exceptional upside as a guard. The power, athleticism, and extremely physical edginess that he plays with allows him to punch above his weight (6-4, 302), and he could be an upgrade over Wattenberg in the long-run. Myles Murao, Cole Norgaard, and Victor Curne could all find themselves in the guard competition as well if competitions for the center or tackle spots don’t go their way, but I have a feeling that Huff would like a young guy like Murao to focus on one spot first (probably focusing on center).
Others to keep an eye on are Corey Luciano and our freshmen. Luciano was a team player when he was pressed into emergency TE duties for much of the season, and his flip flopping between positions probably cost him a shot at competing for a starting spot at either TE or OL. He’s still way too light for me to think that he’ll see much playing time this year with all of the other options that we have. That depth at guard is also why we’ll probably see Geirean Hatchett and Gaard Memmelaar take their redshirts this year.
The center competition will have a huge impact on the final line up that we will see once games start. With Wattenberg’s move to center, the thinking was that the OL would continue to have an experienced and steady leader that could orchestrate the blocking audibles. However, there are a number of contenders that have been groomed to take over at center, as well as the highly touted Murao, who will put up stiff competition.
Wattenberg’s transition to center and winning the job hinges on his further mastery of the line calls and his ability to adjust his technique to accommodate snapping, which can be a challenge to some. Even without seeing him play center, Wattenberg’s history of versatility (he’s played extended snaps at LT & LG) and steady performances should inspire confidence in his ability to win the job. However, even with his athleticism, bigger size, and experience, Harris was so good in certain aspects of his game that a smooth transition for Wattenberg would still likely see some drop off in performance.
Norgaard, prior to an injury that kept him on the sidelines all of last season, was seemingly being groomed by Huff to take over for Harris, but the injury forced Huff to readjust on the fly by pressing Matteo Mele into service as our back up center. Norgaard has had very few live game reps to assess, and who knows how his recovery has gone, so it’s anyone’s guess where he stands going into camp. As for Mele, we’ve seen him for extended stretches when he started against Arizona, and he had some very mixed results. There were plays where he was able to flash his athleticism on center-pulling plays, but he also struggled a great deal with his iOL footwork, pass protection technique and assignments. That performance by itself is probably what shook up Huff’s adjusted succession plan and brought Wattenberg into the mix. I would not give Norgaard or Mele great odds to win the starting job, so the more interesting scenario will be who sticks at back up.
The most intriguing contender in the center competition will be Myles Murao, who comes to Montlake as one of the most highly rated OL recruits we’ve ever landed. Like Wattenberg, Norgaard, and Mele, Murao has a tackle background, so his athleticism is not lacking, but unlike the others, he’s been projected as a center or guard from the get go. His skill set and athletic gifts could very well make him a more talented Nick Harris, and he arrives on campus at a college-ready size, but he’ll need to be a quick study to make a run at the starting job. I’d still expect him to be finish behind Wattenberg in the competition, but there’s a chance that his talent will overcome his lack of experience to even out his odds against Norgaard and Mele. There is also a chance that he begins his career at guard, like Harris, before moving in to center.
Key Spots to Watch
The Center Competition Repercussions
Of the foursome competing at center, three have either spent extended time at another position and/or project as immediate depth at other positions (Wattenberg at guard/tackle, Mele at tackle, and Murao at guard). This could lead to serious repercussions in other competitions. The scenario with the least shuffling would be to have Wattenberg start, then have both Norgaard and Mele serve as back ups while Murao starts his career at guard. A more likely scenario would again have Wattenberg start, Murao and Norgaard compete for the back up role, and then move Mele back to tackle where it seems like he was finding his footing before moving to center. The chaos scenario, but perhaps also the ideal scenario, would be to have Murao come in and immediately separate himself as a starting caliber center. Wattenberg would then kick back over to his guard spot and share back up center duties with Norgaard while Mele moves back to tackle. That would leave Huff with the largest number of options to pick and choose the best at each position, but it may continue the log jam at tackle and guard and delay the gelling process of the starting unit.
Long-Term Vision at Tackle
The 2019 and 2020 OL classes came as a surprise to some who pay close attention to our line recruiting. Between Adams, McGary, Hilbers, and now Kirkland, it had seemed as though Huff had a clear vision of what he wanted in a tackle. Wattenberg’s 2017 run at left tackle could’ve been seen as an aberration since it was an emergency situation and he ended up moving to guard, but Curne’s reps at tackle while Bainivalu, a more conventionally built tackle, was taking reps at guard were further examples of a smaller, quicker type of tackle that Huff was willing to play. Then came Kalepo and Buelow in 2019 as extremely large but more athletically limited tackles, who were then followed up by Roger Rosengarten and Samuel Peacock who fall closer to the Wattenberg/Mele-profile than the Kalepo/Buelow-profile.
This isn’t to say that there’s one way of approaching tackle play, but that I have no idea where Huff’s vision is taking our line. Kalepo is a good forward mover with incredible strength, but his lateral agility might make him a liability on the edge if defenses pick on him with speed rushers. I could see him kicking inside and being a road grader like Kirkland or Ale. Buelow is quicker on his feet and has a feel for pass protection that inspires some confidence, but he surprisingly lacks the functional strength to anchor against power rushers or bully defenders in the run game. In the long-run, I think Buelow could be a pretty good tackle and isn’t likely to move inside, so there’s some guarantee that we’ll continue to see big tackles in the near future.
Predicted Line Up
(Position: Starter, Back Up)
LT: Kirkland, Mele
LG: Ale, Fautanu
C: Wattenberg, Norgaard
RG: Bainivalu, Murao
RT: Curne, Kalepo
Predicted Average Starting Size: ~6-5.5, 321 lbs
2019 Average Starting Size: ~6-5.5, 311 lbs
Jumbo Package (Just for fun)
*Based on last year’s jumbo personnel package
LT: Kirkland (6-7, 322)
LG: Ale (6-6, 352)
C: Wattenberg (6-5, 297)
RG: Bainivalu (6-6, 320)
RT: Curne (6-3, 313)
6OL: Kalepo (6-6, 342)
TEs: Otton (6-5, 240), Kizer (6-5, 258)
FB: Westover (6-3, 243)
RB: Newton (6-0, 208)
Total Blocking Size (Non-QB/RB): 2687 lbs