Tough sledding up front

SEATTLE - Spring was a telling moment for the University of Washington football team. When you looked at the front-line Huskies along the offensive trenches, it told you all you needed to know about how many games this team might win in 2012.

Sure, Keith Price returns. The junior signal-caller from California is perhaps the most accurate thrower the Huskies have had under center since Tim Cowan. Price puts the ball EXACTLY where he wants it to go. He makes smart throws, and can make any throw you ask of him. A quick hitch, a touch flare, a roll-out seed through a zone, a straight drop sluggo, a 30-yard out to the opposite hash, a deep post, a corner fade….you name it, Price can make the throw.

He has a bevy of talented receivers to throw to, including Kasen Williams, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound beast that can high jump over Aziz N'Diaye. Seriously, he has jumped 7 feet. He has huge hands, very good speed, and is strong enough to rip your arm out of your socket if you try to bring him down wrong. Also in that receiving corps is Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a 6-foot-6 265-pound bull that can run better than any linebacker that might have the unfortunate job of covering him in space. He also has incredible body control and can find open spaces as well as a man half his size. Senior James Johnson has also proven to be very capable as a deep threat, and I have to believe that Kevin Smith at full speed will be at least as productive as he's been in his first two years.

Although Chris Polk is gone, Bishop Sankey looks ready to add some additional work to his load, and he brings a burst through the line that makes him extremely dangerous. With him is Jesse Callier, and though not as explosive as Sankey, he knows the offense and shows good hands out of the backfield. It is a solid one-two punch to be sure, and on paper should be good enough to not suffer as much of a drop off as previously feared from the ever-present Polk.

However it will all depend on what the Huskies can bring to the front-line trenches.

Before spring even started, Washington lost one of their brightest young stars when OG Colin Porter was forced to retire due to degenerative shoulder injuries. They bothered him in high school but it wasn't until the surgeon went in to clean them up that it was realized just how bad of shape they were in. Porter was destined to be a four-year starter and was one of the strongest guys up front.

Colin Tanigawa, the other starting guard last year, missed this spring while recovering from surgery that repaired his torn ACL, suffered against Oregon State last year. Erik Kohler, penciled in as either the starting right tackle or perhaps taking over the guard spot that Porter would now give up, was given limited reps while he recovered from being generally banged up all of last year.

That is NOT a recipe for building a cohesive offensive line. A unit who perhaps holds the key to how many games this squad might win becomes a huge question mark as summer looms.

Before all of these injuries befell the Huskies, everyone had forecasted an offensive line that had four returning starters in RT Kohler, OG's Tanigawa and Porter, and C Drew Schaefer. That would've been a nice thing to work on all spring, building cohesiveness and consistency among these players while finding a replacement for Senio Kelemete at the WT position.

Instead, the Huskies went with an offensive line of very young back-ups thrown into the fray.

In some ways, that is not all bad. The positive spin on this would be that the players that would be normally in the twos of the depth chart got a lot more reps, thus would be that much more ready come fall camp.

So when spring camp broke, the offensive line consisted of WT Micah Hatchie, OG James Atoe, OG Erik Kohler, C Mike Criste, and ST Ben Riva. Criste got work with the ones due to Schaefer having a knee cleaned up. Kohler ran limited reps, so it was hard to call him a starter. Dexter Charles was more the starter, and Siosifa Tufunga got some looks at the other guard spot as well.

Tufunga broke his hand, thus limiting his effectiveness this spring as well.

Hatchie is so talented and very strong. He used to be a little light for the WT position, but not any longer. Perhaps the man who made the biggest strides from last year to now is Atoe, who at one time weighed over 350 pounds. He is now much closer to 320 and moving well with his transformed body. Charles was a very pleasant surprise and really moved up the depth. He didn't disappoint and while he made typical mistakes of a redshirt freshman, he brought it with intensity on every down. Criste can play any of the three inside spots, and Riva looks ready to assume starting minutes. He was nearly the starter last year but he was not pushed into duty. Instead, Tanigawa earned the start at guard which allowed Kohler to move outside to tackle. With Riva now ready to start at the strong side, Kohler can move back inside.

Assuming Tanigawa returns at full strength in time for fall camp, that would give the Huskies some nice depth inside. Tanigawa and Kohler would likely start with Atoe rotating. Schaefer would be the starter at center but Criste could spell him if needed. Kohler also proved to be a solid center in spring. And when Hatchie or Riva needed a break, Kohler could slide outside to his old tackle spot. That is a decent seven-man rotation with a good mix of experience. If Dexter Charles continues on his upward trend, it provides additional insurance should Tanigawa not be ready to assume the starter role.

Incoming freshmen should never be part of the answer of the offensive line equation to be solved; however with Porter gone and injuries to Tanigawa and Schaefer, the situation isn't ideal.

Thus you can bet that OL Coach Dan Cozzetto has been in the ear of Hawaiian behemoth Shane Brostek. He appears to be an offensive guard and he is already so strong that he may get a look as early as September. Bellevue's Jake Eldrenkamp may also get a look at tackle, but it would be more likely that Charles or Kohler would swing outside. Hopefully both frosh can redshirt and not be called upon for another year or two to contribute, but a lot of that depends on the health of the knees of Schaefer, Kohler, and Tanigawa.

There is perhaps no more important development taking place in terms of the Husky 2012 season than that of Hatchie at the weak tackle spot. He is the one that needs to protect Keith Price's blindside and prevent defensive ends and linebackers from getting around and through him en route to dropping Price to the turf. Keeping No. 17 healthy this year is crucial, and the best way to do that is to keep him upright and preventing him from getting hit in the back or knees.

If Hatchie proves up to the task and assuming Schaefer and Tanigawa return 100 percent and Kohler is able to stave off nagging injuries, the potential of this group is great. If Price can trust them enough to drop back and take the time to make his reads, he will chew defenses to shreds.

If he is rushed, or worse, injured from getting banged up, it could be a long season for Washington.


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