Drawing a Line

Due to the numerous comments about my last article's "fluffy" and platitude-laden content, I felt compelled to take a more poignant look at the Huskies' most glaring weaknesses heading into next season: The Lines.

(For brevity, I've largely excluded incoming freshman from this analysis)

Without further ado...

Offensive Line. This seems to be everyone's biggest concern heading into 2013 and for good reason. The O-line in 2012 was mediocre for the majority and downright terrible for several stretches. They gave up 38 sacks last season. To compare, USC led the conference with 17 sacks surrendered. Without a doubt, protecting Keith Price should be priority numero uno for Steve Sarkisian and his staff in 2013. Number 17 has shown that he is not the most durable of QBs when it comes to taking hits. His legs have not responded well under duress, and as a result he's been using this offseason to try and strengthen his lower body (For the record, I'm not sure what a QB can do to withstand a continual barrage of punishment). It doesn't take a genius to observe that if Price is hit early and often next season, it's only a matter of time until the offense unravels again.

{At the end of 2012, the dust settled with the o-line as follows (from left to right): Micah Hatchie, Dexter Charles, Drew Schaefer, Mike Criste, and Ben Riva.}

Let's take a closer look:

LT: In 2012, Micah Hatchie (6'5", 293) went through definite growing pains as he acclimated to the PAC-12 level of play. The native Hawaiian struggled with some of the conference's better edge rushers (and some that weren't so great) and will need to step us his footwork and blitz recognition in '13. To say the pass blocking was fairly poor last year is like saying Joan Rivers has had some plastic surgery. This unit needs to get better and do it fast. And, protecting number 17's blindside begins and ends with Hatchie. So, whether it's Micah or someone else, keeping Price's jersey clean and mind sound is essential to the Huskies' ability to take some big shots downfield; and hopefully restore some of this offense's explosiveness.
Backup(s): Dexter Charles (6'4", 292), Jake Eldrenkamp (6'5", 292), Ross Dolbec (6'6", 300)

LG: Colin Tanigawa (6'3", 281) could reportedly be moving to center to replace Drew Schaefer, but as of now, I'll pencil him in at his natural spot. Dexter Charles filled in here when Colin went down but I have to believe this is Tanigawa's spot to lose. And, since Colin is coming off an injury, we won't know how healthy he is until fall camp. That being said, his return to form will be play a significant role in the o-line's success, as he is one of the more tenured members of the group. Tanigawa is a strong and fundamentally sound football player with a good football IQ. He can get overwhelmed inside by some of the conference's bigger DT's but overall he's a solid o-lineman—something the Huskies are desperately short on. Sifa Tufunga could also see action at guard if the decision is made to place Tanigawa at center. And, it's worth noting that Charles displayed eyebrow-raising nastiness that you look for in an o-lineman and has been rock solid the first half of spring practices. He appears to be someone that will make a name for himself among this group when it's all said and done.
Backup(s): Dexter Charles, Siosifa Tufunga (6'2", 307)

Center: Either Tanigawa or Tufunga could occupy this spot but it is pure speculation at this point. In 2012, Mike Criste was Drew Schaefer's backup when it came to snapping the rock to Price and he has been the stalwart there so far this spring. Honestly, I haven't done an in-depth analysis of Criste's tape from last season. But, given the amount of punishment inflicted on the Husky quarterback, I would guess the play at center resembled a Wal-Mart turnstile on Black Friday. Kidding aside, the fact that Tufunga and Tanigawa are already being mentioned to play center in 2013 too clearly indicates the UW staff's urgency for immediate improvement. The Huskies also struggled mightily to run the ball on short yardage situations- another indication of poor play in the middle of the o-line. Finding a reliable center - that Price feels comfortable with- is beyond crucial for the Huskies in '13. Who will it be? We will just have to wait and see where the chips fall.
Backup(s): Erik Kohler (6'4", 299), Siosifa Tufunga, Colin Tanigawa

RG: Originally recruited out of high school as a right tackle, Erik Kohler's (6'4, 299) game is apparently better suited for the guard position. Unfortunately, Kohler was injured early in 2012 and was granted a medical redshirt, essentially affording him another year of eligibility. As much as Keith Price (and Husky fans everywhere) missed Kohler last year, his presence on the o-line is a huge plus for the 2013 team. Short on talent and leadership on the line, Kohler's experience in the system should allow him to act as a coach on the field. He's extremely familiar with Cozetto's blocking schemes and the right guard spot belongs to Kohler, barring anything unforeseen. His return will certainly be a breath of fresh air and remaining healthy will be of the utmost importance this offseason and as 2013 begins. Both Ross Dolbec (6'6", 300) and James Atoe (6'6", 335) saw action at guard due to the injury to Kohler - both of whom were about as ready for Pac-12 play as DIRECTV (see what I did there?). This spring it's been Shane Brostek (6'4", 280) moving back from the defensive line and Bellevue walk-on Michael Kneip (6'4", 299) that have been challenging Atoe for playing time, but the big junior from The Dalles has put himself well clear so far. In accord with the overarching theme to this article, I'm hoping that a year of "adjusting" pays dividends down the road.
Backup(s): James Atoe, Shane Brostek, Michael Kneip

RT: To be sure, Ben Riva (6'6", 302) had his fair share of plight in 2012. He also gained invaluable experience that can only be acquired through the tribulations of defeat (sorry if that was Bill Walton-esque..) But Riva did show some glimpses that he can be a quality starting tackle in this conference. He needs to improve his footwork and use better hand placement in pass blocking. That being said, he's proven to be a fairly proficient blocker in the running game and hopefully that will get even better going forward.
Backup(s): Nathan Dean (6'5", 282)

Overall: Despite the concerns for this group, there are some reasons to be optimistic. First, the young bucks gained invaluable experience last season as they were abruptly thrown into the fire. Those reps, in theory, should pay dividends in the future. Second, Ben Riva is reportedly having a good spring and it appears he's on a solid growth trajectory. Lastly, the Huskies are returning four starters on the o-line and that's always a good thing for a unit that relies heavily on chemistry, communication, and camaraderie.
Defensive Line. Just like with the other football team in town, getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be hovering around the top of Justin Wilcox's to-do list. The Huskies managed just 27 sacks in 2012, five of which came against a terrible Colorado team. That season total was good for 9th in the conference - not even close to the expectations for this team. So let's take a peek into the cupboard and see what's there:

DE: Andrew Hudson (6'3", 249) will be a junior in 2013 and I'm really hoping he can breakthrough for a double-digit sack campaign next season. He and Josh Shirley (6'3", 230) will both be upperclassmen next season and the clock is ticking. Both need to find ways to add some power moves to their pass-rush repertoire to complement their natural speed. The duo has shown flashes but neither seem to have put it all together up to this point. Shirley, particularly, has rare speed for his size and, with further development, could be playing on Sundays in the near future. Wilcox will likely need to employ stunts and other exotic blitz pressures in order to take advantage of Hudson and Shirley's speed.

And then there's dear old Hau'oli Jamora (6'3", 260). If only this guy could stay healthy. Since his coming out party against Nebraska in the 2010 Holiday Bowl, Jamora has sustained back-to-back season-ending ACL injuries. His presence at DE instantly improves the Husky pass rush. However, much like Deontae Cooper, it's very difficult to depend on very much production from a player who's coming off multiple knee injuries. From a sack perspective, it's a big blow if he's not able to suit up, or is considerably hampered next season. Here's to hoping that both he and Cooper can stay healthy in 2013.

A boost from young players like Pio Vatuvei (6'2", 281), Cory Littleton (6'3", 230), and Connor Cree (6'4", 245) would also be huge for the unit. All three players bring something different to the table. Vatuvei is a very strong player who is stout against the run and possesses some inside pass rush capability, but who knows how much he'll be able to give after suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2012. While Littleton and Cree are guys who are long and athletic and can get after the passer off the edge. Sophomore Jarett Finau (6'2", 260) saw action in nine games last year and appears to be coming into his own as a member of the d-line.

DT: It's Danny Shelton's time - that's all there is to it. He is the anchor of the defensive line and he has the ability to be a run-stuffing, game-altering defensive tackle. He uses a strong base, and a technique rooted in wrestling, to gain leverage over offensive linemen. However, his ability to take over a game with dominance has yet to be seen. And that is the next step in the evolution of Danny Shelton. With his second year under Wilcox's system on the horizon, anything short of 1st team All-Pac-12 will be a disappointment in my eyes. While he certainly hasn't been the culprit for this unit's struggles, especially given the amount of double teams he sees, Danny is capable of much more. A likely candidate to backup Shelton is redshirt sophomore Tani Tupou (6'1", 272) who has been, despite high acclaim as a high school player, a marginal producer up to this point. His evolution in 2013 will be worth monitoring as 2013 unfolds. The 'x-factor' here will be the return of Lawrence Lagafuaina (6'0", 317). How the junior from Hawaii fares coming off his own knee injury will be key to offering some protection and rest for Shelton when he needs it - and he's going to need it.

The other tackle (or DE, if you prefer) spot, vacated by Semisi Tokolahi's graduation, is now open and vying for its stewardship are Sione Potoa'e (6'2", 271) and Josh Banks (6'2", 265). (This spot is called DE but, just like in the NFL—think Red Bryant—it's occupied by a large, run-stuffer.) Nearly identical in size, Banks and Potoa'e two took very different routes to the University of Washington. Potoa'e was highly recruited out of nearby Lakes High School, while Banks is a JUCO transfer from Northern California. Nevertheless, both finished out 2012 in mildly promising fashion. Banks appears to have more of a knack for getting into opposing backfields, so I'm looking for a strong push from him in spring and fall camps. While he appears too undersized for the tackle position, redshirt freshman Damion Turpin (6'1", 256) could factor into the d-line equation as well.

(While I didn't elaborate on them for space considerations, incoming freshmen Elijah Qualls, Andrew Basham, Joe Mathis, and Marcus Farria could bolster the D-line, if a redshirt isn't deemed necessary. Particularly, I could see Mathis emerging from this group given his D-I-ready build (6'4", 255) and reputation for being a relentless pass-rusher.)

Regardless of how all these position battles play out, one thing remains inescapably clear: UW must improve in the trenches if 2013 is going to smell like roses instead of a MAACO muffler. It's time for Sark and Wilcox to deliver on the promise of a Pac-12 title.

Go Dawgs!

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