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2014 Football Review: Offensive Line

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Entering the 2014 season with experience and high expectations, the offensive line failed to take a step forward and was as much to blame for the pedestrian offensive efforts of the Huskies as anyone.

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Next in the 2014 season review is the offensive line.  The loss of several key offensive weapons from the 2013 team begged questions heading into September, but the hope was that the experience returning on the offensive line, plus the addition of a highly regarded coach in Chris Strausser, would help keep the Dawgs on track.  Here's what Kirk DeGrasse had to say last fall:

You'd be hard-pressed to find an offensive coordinator that would be happy to enter a season minus record-setting multi-year starters at QB and RB. But if they had to, they'd want an experienced, veteran crew up front to lead the way. That's exactly the situation facing new OC Jonathan Smith, and he couldn't ask for a more experienced OL as the Huskies return 124 starts and all of last-year's full-time starters. This may in fact be the most experienced Husky OL in several decades, if not ever.

Strausser is by all accounts very different in his approach. Rather than yell, he teaches and corrects. Perhaps it's because he wasn't an OL himself as a player, but whatever the reason, you have to admire his results. If he can impart his pass-blocking magic with this group, we could be looking at one of the best OL units in the country.

2014 Year in Review

The offensive line continued a seemingly decades-long trend of struggles and failure to become even a top-half-of-the-conference unit.  Pass protection was again an issue from the first game all the way through the Cactus Bowl.  Without a talent like Chris Polk or Bishop Sankey in the backfield, run blocking at a minimum gave the appearance of regression, if it wasn't actually worse.

Suffice it to say, expectations were not met.

It became clear that the New Boss wasn't the same as the Old Boss early in spring practices in March.  Honorable mention All Pac-12 and Rimington Award Watch List center Mike Criste was replaced in the lineup by right guard Colin Tanigawa, and Tanigawa's spot was filled by the sun-blotting James Atoe.  Joining them in the middle of the line was left guard Dexter Charles, and they were flanked by left tackle Jake Eldrenkamp (filling in for the injured Micah Hatchie) and right tackle Ben Riva.  Hatchie regained his starting role once he got healthy, but the interior of the line stayed the same all the way through fall camp.

The next piece of evidence came when the fall camp roster was released.  Gaining bulk was the order of the day, and it showed in weight gains of 10-30 pounds in each of the returning linemen.  Guys that were recruited, and trained, for athleticism more than size were asked to transform themselves to fit the schemes and ideals of the new coaching staff.

As mentioned, the loss of Bishop Sankey really can't be overstated in terms of the running game and how it reflects on the offensive line.  And it's very difficult to determine how to apportion credit (or blame) of the running attack to the backs themselves versus the line.  But to the naked eye, this was a team that struggled to consistently run the ball.  As an offensive unit, the running game averaged almost a yard less per carry than it did in 2014.  And it was clear, especially early, that the early iterations of this line struggled to adjust to becoming larger human beings; one needs only to compare the Dexter Charles of 2013 pulling with ease to lead a back on a power to the one in 2014 huffing and puffing to get to the hole, for example.

Pass blocking continued a seemingly endless trend of being an adventure on roller skates.  Again, it's tough to separate the quarterback from his blocking, but a far more mobile (than Keith Price) was sacked the 56th-most times in the country.  Even more damaging than that, though, is that those sacks were 90th in yards lost - when the quarterback went down, he went down big.

Disaster struck early for this unit when an injury to senior Ben Riva was announced right before the Hawaii game.  He was able to return the next week against Eastern to get his first start, but missed the next three games.  Seemingly healthy, he suffered a new injury in his return at Cal, and was able to play only rarely the rest of the season.  In his place, redshirt freshman Coleman Shelton started seven games at right tackle.  While he gained valuable experience that should pay dividends down the road, he was overmanned once conference play started, and was replaced by James Atoe, who was replaced by Mike Criste.

Needless to say, it was a disappointing conclusion to Riva's Husky career that also saw him miss the first half of the 2012 season, his first as a starter, due to a broken arm.  While it's unlikely that he would've been the difference on the line, there's no doubt that his experience and talent would've been a boost.

After recovering from his offseason injury, Honorable Mention All Pac-12 senior Micah Hatchie returned for his third season starting at left tackle, and posted another Honorable Mention All Pac-12 season.  While playing at what might be the only "glamour" position on the line, Hatchie had his struggles and was a frequent target of fan criticism.  He won't be mentioned in the same breath as Lincoln Kennedy, but he was a credible left tackle in this conference, and is going to be a lot more difficult to replace than many fans realize.

After being constantly praised as the unit's most consistent and tenacious lineman, Colin Tanigawa handled his new position with aplomb early in the season.  Things started to unravel early in conference play, as he seemingly developed the yips with his shotgun snaps, culminating in several off-target attempts in the Arizona game that resulted in him being moved back to guard late in the year - too late for many fans' liking.  His blocking was under appreciated by many.  It was enough for him to earn Honorable Mention All Pac-12 in 2014.

Mike Criste was a man left out in the cold for some reason in 2014.  Consistent both with both his snaps and his blocking in 2013, he was removed as a starter at center from the get-go in the spring and largely left on the bench.  Atoe was eventually moved to right tackle, and Criste was inserted at right guard in the UCLA game.  He moved to center for the final two regular season games and the bowl game.  While he wasn't the same blocker as Tanigawa at center, his starts in the interior at either position seem to be the staff starting the best five linemen available.

Dexter Charles came in to the 2014 as the incumbent at left guard after turning in an Honorable Mention All-Conference performance in 2013 as a sophomore.  Most often used as the pulling guard on power plays, he had the most obvious struggles with his weight gain.  But again, he turned in a mostly decent performance in 2014 when healthy.  He missed three starts and was very limited in his first game back.  Charles was left home for the bowl game due to academic issues.  This is a major concern.

Siosifa Tufunga was the only other lineman to see regular action outside of garbage time.  He made five starts for the injured or suspended Charles at left guard.  The experience that he gained will be valuable heading in to 2015, and makes him a very strong candidate to start at a guard spot, or potentially at center.

The Cascade Front offensive line class of 2010 was supposed to the the group that turned the fortunes of the Washington offensive line.  It began to deteriorate early with the retirements of Colin Porter and Erik Kohler due to injuries, and never reached fans expectations, though it's not clear how much the coaching change affected this group in 2014.  With the final gun of the Cactus Bowl in 2015, this group's time is now done at the University of Washington.  Their legacy will be mixed, but the effort they gave, and their role in changing the fortunes of the Huskies will be missed.

Looking Ahead to 2015

Virtually overnight, the Huskies have gone from one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country to one of the least.  Dexter Charles has 22 career starts, Coleman Shelton has 7, Siosifa Tufunga has 4, and Shane Brostek had one way back in 2012.  And that's it.  34, on the whole roster.  Not only that, those are the only players that have any significant experience.

Yikes.

Based on what's coming back, it's difficult to project a step forward.  The hope comes in the form of a second offseason with strength coach Tim Socha, and a second year of working toward becoming the types of players in the scheme that Coach Strausser looks for in his linemen.  In short, development of the bodies already on the roster.

The optimist will say that the new coaching staff thought enough of The Enigma That is Shane Brostek to redshirt him this season, instead of playing him on special teams and in garbage time.  The pessimist will say Brostek wasn't good enough to earn play on special teams or in garbage time.  Either way, a guy that has hardly played the last two seasons is one of the most experienced linemen on the roster.  And he'll be in the mix with Tufunga, Dane Crane, Andrew Kirkland and redshirt freshmen like Jesse Sosebee to fill the vacant interior spots around Charles.

Tackle is the biggest concern.  While Shelton gained some valuable experience, he's going to have to make a significant step forward in 2015.  As he's only going to be a redshirt sophomore, it's not unreasonable to think he might.  On the other side, Eldrenkamp is the early leader to take over for Hatchie.

Just like 2014, and just about every other year, the offensive line is going to be the biggest limiting factor for the offense in 2015.  While a few fans might look at this as a glass half full due to the track record of development with this coaching staff (and the underperformance of the line the last several years), most are going to see the glass as half empty.  I'm just going to call it a glass right now, and I'll see what's in there come September.