It’s time to take a look at the foundation of next season’s offense, the big guys up front.
2022 Season Refresher
In my opinion, one of the clearest examples of how impactful scheme & fit is to an offense was the 2022 offensive line. With the same position coach and working with the same group of contributing players, UW’s offensive line went from one of the worst in the conference at pass protection and rushing production to one of the best pass protecting lines in the country in a revamped pass-happy offense. Heading into the season, returning starters Jaxson Kirkland and Henry Bainivalu were figured to be the anchors of the line, but it were the new starters who really powered this group’s rebound to excellence.
After a few weeks of line up reshuffling, the emergence of Troy Fautanu and Roger Rosengarten as an elite pair of bookend tackles allowed Coach Huff to move multi-year starter and All-Pac-12 OL Jaxson Kirkland back to his more natural guard position, all while 6th year center (but first time starter) Corey Luciano settled in as a consistent presence at center. With shorter athletes on the edges and bigger/taller players on the interior, our offensive line might not have had the typical arrangement of measurables, but it was extremely effective, with the second fewest allowed sacks in the country.
Departures: Corey Luciano (Exhausted Eligibility), Jaxson Kirkland (Exhausted Eligibility), Henry Bainivalu (Exhausted Eligibility), Victor Curne (Ole Miss)
In a vacuum, offensive line is as much about consistency and chemistry as it is pure talent on an individual level, so having seasoned vets like Kirkland and Bainivalu were exceedingly important as Fautanu, Rosengarten, and Luciano got settled. Luciano might not have finished his UW career with the same number of starts as Kirkland and Bainivalu, but the center-QB connection and having a consistent voice in the middle of the line are incredibly important as well. Their departures will leave big shoes to fill (literally and figuratively).
Victor Curne shouldn’t be forgotten either. As a 2-year starter at RT, it was initially curious to see him get passed up on the depth chart by Rosengarten. Sure, he was an unconventional talent at OT, but he played pretty well when he was the starter, and he provided a ton of value as an experienced back up this past season. We wish him the best as he finishes his career at Ole Miss.
Returning Starters*: Troy Fautanu (LT), Roger Rosengarten (RT)
Returning Backups*: Julius Buelow (LT), Nate Kalepo (LG), Matteo Mele (C), Geirean Hatchett (RG)
Returning Depth: Myles Murao, Gaard Memmelaar, Samuel Peacock, Owen Prentice, Parker Brailsford, Robert Wyrsch
*Players & positions based on official the Alamo Bowl 2-deep depth chart
I’ve already gushed over the breakout seasons that Fautanu and Rosengarten had in 2022, but I can’t overstate how important they are to the offense. UW’s been at its best when we’ve had elite OT combos, such as Lincoln-Malamala of the James Era & more recently the Adams-McGary combo of the Petersen Era. These two should be the next in that tradition.
Where things get interesting is who among the returning backups steps up into the starting roles. All four returning 2nd-stringers are former blue chip recruits who have earned playing time over the last two years at various positions. Matteo Mele has the most extensive playing time of the group, both at OT and OC. He’s most recently gotten time at OC, at times rotating with Luciano this past season, and he seems to have the inside track to win the starting center job.
Kalepo and Hatchett seem to have the clearest path to winning the two OG jobs as last season’s backups at those spots. Kalepo’s build is similar to Kirkland and Bainivalu, and his blend of power and quickness give him a high ceiling as a mauler on the interior if he can play more consistently. Hatchett might be the most versatile between him, Kalepo, and Bainivalu. Practice reports noted that he’s been taking reps at center, guard, and tackle so far this spring, and last season he even got a few reps as a jumbo TE in 6 OL packages. He’s a road grader who is proficient as a puller, which could bring a different dimension to our blocking schemes. I don’t know exactly where he projects to, but he will likely find a starting spot somewhere on the interior.
Julius Buelow is a bit tougher to project. He has a prototypical OT frame, but his height is somewhat limiting to his prospects on the interior. Like he showed in high school, his reach is his best trait. In his appearances at OG, his best plays were when he could latch onto defenders and wall them off. When asked to drive defenders off the LOS or get on the move to make a block (reach blocks, pulling, etc.), he struggled to consistently make his blocks. His best fit might be on the edge.
For the rest of the returnees we have a promising blend of former blue chip recruits, such as Murao and Prentice, and talented developmental players. If Murao can get back to 100% and stay healthy, he has the talent to be a dark horse candidate for one of the iOL spots, even though he hasn’t made his college debut yet. For Memmelaar and Prentice, their HS backgrounds in run-based offenses meant that they were always going to need some time honing their pass protection skills. They’ve both had a few years to do so, and they might finally be working their way into legitimate contention as rotational players. Peacock, Brailsford, and Wyrsch all have elite traits to build their game around, but their breakthroughs might not be imminent. Peacock and Brailsford are both progressing through McKeefrey’s S&C program, and Wyrsch is still a relative newcomer to the sport as a whole.
Spring Practice Arrivals (Position, Arrival From, Rating, Height, Weight): Landen Hatchett (iOL, HS, 4-star, 6-3, 300), Zachary Henning (OT, HS, 3-star, 6-5, 290)
We will have 2/5 of our talented 2023 OL class available for portions of Spring Practices this Year, and even though they won’t be major contenders for the initial 2-deep, it’ll be worth keeping an eye out for them. The younger Hatchett is one of the best pure center prospects on the West Coast, and he was one of my favorite players in our 2023 class overall:
As I’ve mentioned in several other recruiting breakdowns, its the seemingly “little things” that make a big difference at the next level, and Hatchett checks a number of boxes when it comes to the little things. First off, when looking at all offensive line prospects, and especially iOL prospects, the ability to play center is a tremendously valuable skill. Being able to get off a clean snap when under center and in shotgun is one thing, but being able to play center is more than just snapping. Just the simple dynamics of getting the snap off while stoning a burly DT with only one hand for your initial punch is incredibly difficult for even high-level OGs and OTs to figure out. For that reason alone, I personally value a high-end center over many OTs and all OG-only prospects.
Henning is a different type of player than Hatchett. Instead of having a uniquely well-tailored skillset for one position, Henning has an athletic profile that could put him at any number of positions. While he might need some time to reach his ceiling, I think he could be a key depth player early in his career:
In my opinion, Henning has some potential as an inside-outside OL candidate. Similar to Jaxson Kirkland, Henning has the strength and physicality to compensate for being an atypically tall iOL early in his career as he refines his technique and works through the S&C program. Like Kirkland, an early stint at iOL will help to highlight his run blocking strengths, hide his raw pass protection technique, and help him get early career reps that’ll accelerate his development later in his career.
He’s not quite up to P5 starting-caliber playing weight just yet, but its not unrealistic to think he could be near 290 by the time he shows up on campus, which is on the light side but close enough that he won’t be on a multi-year bulking/cutting program like some others. Alternatively, Huff could try him at OT first to see if his agility can hold up on the perimeter and then decide from there if it’s worth him cross training between OT and iOL.
Things to Keep an Eye on
The iOL Competitions & Scheme Adjustments for Talent Fit
As previously mentioned, all three iOL spots need to be filled this off season, and we have a handful of solid options to get excited about. What will be interesting to keep an eye on will be how Huff pieces together his line up. The easiest approach (which may end up being the best) would be to simply move the three back ups into the top spots on the depth chart. However, players are never like-for-like replacements for one another, and each have their own unique traits and skillsets. Huff has already shown that he’s willing to think outside of the box when it comes to building his best lineups and showcasing each players best traits, and Grubb has a history of tailoring the scheme and his play calling to suit the players.
If certain players take the next step this off season, I could see a scenario where Huff awards the starting LG spot to a someone like Owen Prentice or Myles Murao over Kalepo or Buelow to run more outside zone concepts. We already have the athleticism at the OT and OC to run those schemes, so it might make sense to take the “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” approach. Alternatively, we could lean on more creative run schemes that put the five best talents on the field and tailor various gap concepts to the players on hand. I for one wouldn’t mind seeing some GT counter concepts from Hatchett and Rosengarten.
There’s a lot of ways this could play out, but we should be confident that Huff will put together a strong unit next year.
Coach B’s Projected OL (left to right): Fautanu, Kalepo, Mele, Hatchett, Rosengarten
Who Takes the Next Step
One other thing to keep an eye on is who will take the next step in their development and fill out the rest of the 2-deep. There will be 4 spots to claim on the 2-deep next season, and backups are always one play away from playing time. Myles Murao, Owen Prentice, and Parker Brailsford are the three that I’ll be keeping an eye out for. Murao’s health has been the limiting factor to his career thus far, but he did arrive to the program with high expectations and early buzz that he was in line for early playing time based on his talent and technical polish. If he can stay healthy he should be able to claim a spot on the 2-deep.
If Hatchett’s development arc can be applied to Prentice, he might be in line for some playing time this year. Both came in as unfinished pass blockers with high upside and strong run blocking. Hatchett took two years to round out his skillset before seeing action in every game his third year. Next season will be Prentice’ third year.
Brailsford has the most interesting development track. Like former Husky Nick Harris, Brailsford joined the program as an undersized but technically polished and athletic iOL recruit. He’s since made strides in the S&C program, and if he can earn the trust of the staff, he might be well positioned to push for a spot in the 2-deep. Huff didn’t shy away from playing Nick Harris against Alabama, and while he took an early beating against bigger opponents, Harris did end up in the NFL. Like Harris, Brailsford’s unique athleticism could unlock schematic options for the group as a whole and set himself apart from his competition.
Let me know who you think will win spots on the 2-deep and who you’re keeping your eyes on in the comment section below.