Spring Preview - Offensive Line

If there's anything I've learned from the half-dozen offensive line coaches that have graced Montlake since I started doing this nearly 15 years ago it's this: they always wonder who recruited these guys, and who taught them such poor technique? It never fails.

So my guess is that first-year UW Offensive Line Coach Chris Strausser, while having strength in numbers, will be right in the trenches, correcting footwork and hand placement issues that were taught by the previous regime…just like Dan Cozzetto did in 2009 and Mike Denbrock did in 2005…you get the idea.

Either way, with that much size, experience, and know-how coming back along Washington's front line, you can be sure whatever offensive philosophy new head coach Chris Petersen incorporates - whether he continues to speed up like Steve Sarkisian did, or go back to a more traditional west-coast style to suit the personnel at hand - he will do it with the players in mind and a time-tested system of core values and beliefs that were damn near perfect in Boise.

"Things will start up front for us, just like everyone commonly says - in football everything starts up front - I really do think that's true," new Washington Offensive Coordinator Jonathan Smith told Dave 'Softy' Mahler Wednesday afternoon on Sports Radio KJR. "I feel with the guys we've got and how they've played, we've got a chance to dominate the line of scrimmage.

"We feel like we've got some experience coming back, we're excited about up front, offensive-line wise. We've got a lot of guys that have some real talent, and so we feel good with that. And we feel like we're going to gain some leadership from that group because there's some players that have played beyond just one year. So we feel good about that.

"I think because they've they've been working together for a year or two now, there's some camaraderie that is huge when it comes to offensive line play. When they have to communicate and make calls and double-team together, they've done some of that. So I'm excited about that.

"We're going to implement some new schemes and so that's going to be new to them. There's going to be a couple of things that they have not run before, so there's going to be a learning curve and they are going to have to feel that out in the spring. That is going to be something different, but with the group we've got - the guys that have played enough - I don't think it's going to take them that long."
Offensive Line:
64 Colin Tanigawa - 6-3, 275 Sr. Pasadena, Calif. (Loyola) - a persistent force along the offensive line, the man they call 'Panda' came back to full force after missing most of the last two seasons with knee injuries. Tanigawa doesn't have the idea size or physical components you'd like in an offensive lineman, but he's always overcome his deficiencies by being tough as nails.
72 Micah Hatchie - 6-5, 305 Sr. Haleiwa, Hawaii (Waialua) - Hatchie finally came into his own in 2013 after struggling the year before finding his position as the one to protect Keith Price's blind side as the left tackle. A highly-rated lineman coming out of Hawaii, Hatchie started out his UW career slowly but has now going full-steam and will be hard to displace going into 2014.
78 Mike Criste - 6-5, 306 Sr. Mission Viejo, Calif. (Mission Viejo) - After playing just about everywhere in 2012, Criste settled in to the center spot left by Drew Schaefer's matriculation, and immediately became a stalwart there - playing every game last season. He played well enough to earn honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. Criste is an intelligent player, smart enough to play anywhere along the line, and he's also a bigger target as a center at 6-foot-5. It's no surprise the UW staff wanted Criste at center; he has no problem talking and is a strong communicator as the quarterback of the offensive line.
59 Ben Riva - 6-6, 300 Sr. Seattle, Wash. (O'Dea) - Riva is a returning two-year starter at right tackle for the Huskies. Outside of an arm injury that cost him five games in 2012, Riva has been rock solid. A big man with long arms and a bit of a nasty streak, Riva is very strong in the run game, but is also athletic enough to handle pass protection responsibilities and can block 'on an island' when needed. His best football remains ahead of him.
70 James Atoe - 6-6, 349 Sr. The Dalles, Ore. (The Dalles-Wahtonka) - Much was made of Atoe's signing to Washington; Steve Sarkisian said on Signing Day 2010 that Atoe had the type of talent that could land him as a top-5 draft choice in the NFL when his UW career was all said and done. It hasn't gone quite that well for Atoe, but he still has one more year to show that ability. He has seven career starts, including the Fight Hunger Bowl win over BYU, and definitely will join the battle at the guard spots with Colin Tanigawa and Dexter Charles.
76 Dexter Charles - 6-4, 289 Jr. Camano Island, Wash. (Stanwood) - A 21-game starter, Charles has played a bunch in his young UW career to date. Expect him to be a 40-plus-game starter by the time his UW career is done. Again, slightly undersized compared to a prototypical college football lineman, but makes up for it with country strength and a mean streak that takes him a long ways.
60 Shane Brostek - 6-4, 278 Jr. Kamuela, Hawaii (Hawai'i Prep) - Brostek came in with very high expectations, being Bern Brostek's son and all, but hasn't lived up to those expectations. In part it's been due to the fact that he's never really settled in at one position, and was even moved to defense his true freshman year to get on the field. This will be Brostek's make-or-break season in terms of breaking through and getting to the point where he can be considered a solid depth player on the verge of starting in 2015. Shane has never lacked for strength, athleticism or nasty - in fact, those were the reasons he was so highly sought-after. But it just hasn't come together yet at UW. Perhaps a clean slate with Chris Strausser will help get the most out of Brostek at this stage in his career.
65 Siosifa Tufunga - 6-2, 305 Jr. Long Beach, Calif. (Jordan) - Whether you knew it or not, Tufunga played in 12 games in 2013 - mostly on special teams. Tufunga is Criste's replacement at center, and as an honorable mention Academic All-Pac-12 selection, Sifa has the brains to be able to handle the position. Definitely more of a road-grader type at 6-foot-2, he's the type of interior lineman that can play both guard spots as well as center. He is also another one of those linemen that gets it done more with brawn, brains and will than pure technique.
62 Ross Dolbec - 6-6, 310 Jr. walk-on Orinda, Calif. (Miramonte)
52 Jake Eldrenkamp - 6-5, 287 So. Medina, Wash. (Bellevue) - Hatchie's replacement at left tackle, Eldrenkamp should have three full years of grooming before taking over full-time in 2015. He played a bunch in five games as a redshirt frosh, so Jake is well on his way toward earning his stripes and putting himself in a position where he can become a valued part of the 2014 OL rotation. Eldrenkamp played both OL and DL at Bellevue, so he has the requisite athleticism you absolutely need for a left tackle.
69 Cory Fuavai - 6-3, 303 So. Auburn, Wash. (Auburn) - Another classic interior lineman, like Tufunga, who has made his name to date based on his toughness and strength. Cory has only played in two games so far in his UW career, so it's difficult to know how much he's developed to date.
63 Taylor Hindy - 6-4, 315 So. West Hills, Calif. (Chaminade Prep) - Hindy has also only played sparingly in a couple of games so far in two seasons at UW. He came to Washington as an unrated prospect, a player the Husky coaches had in camp and wanted to keep him under the radar, like James Atoe. They succeeded. Hindy was expected to not only be an offensive lineman at UW, but also be available as a long snapper; that was part of the reason he was recruited by the Huskies - but so far that part of his game hasn't really developed.
67 Michael Kneip - 6-4, 277 So. walk-on Bellevue, Wash. (Bellevue)
55 Dane Crane - 6-3, 304 RFr. Irvine, Calif. (Santa Margarita Catholic) - Crane was recruited by Sarkisian as the Huskies' center of the future. His father played Pac-12 ball, so it's in his blood. Again, not a real tall player, but at center that's less important. What is important is his leadership skills and ability to quarterback the offensive line, and Crane came to UW with the reputation as being one of the best at that not only on the west coast, but perhaps the entire country.
73 Andrew Kirkland - 6-5, 306 RFr. Portland, Ore. (Jesuit) - Kirkland's story is the kind of story you normally hear about in the recruiting process. He comes from a great program in Portland and was identified early by the UW staff as a player to watch. He then came to the rising stars camp and earned his scholarship by holding his own against some of the best pass rushers on the west coast. He's normally a right tackle prospect, but has the versatility and athleticism to play basically anywhere along the line.
79 Coleman Shelton - 6-5, 285 RFr. Pasadena, Calif. (Loyola) - Another one of those late signings, Shelton comes from Colin Tanigawa's alma mater and slipped through the cracks mostly because he was a late bloomer for the Cubs. But the Huskies did their homework here because by the middle of the season he had cracked the two-deeps despite the fact that there was little chance he would play as a true freshman. The future is incredibly bright for Shelton, who is used to playing in highly-competitive situations.

Departing Players: 1 (Erik Kohler)

Incoming This Fall: 4 (Devin Burleson, Matt James, Jesse Sosebee, John Turner)

Where the Position Stands: While having to figure out what they have to work with coming into spring, there's always going to be all sorts of question marks. But this is where the news gets really good for Petersen and his new staff - and especially for Washington Football fans - when taking a look at the offensive line. They were the starting point for a record-setting UW attack, once that helped produce the Huskies' all-time single-season rusher in Bishop Sankey, as well as the highest-scoring team in school history.

The news doesn't come without a little bit of a dark lining, but Erik Kohler's retirement from the game shouldn't take away from what will be arguably the most experienced UW offensive line of all-time in 2014. Washington signed seven offensive linemen in Steve Sarkisian's 2010 class, commonly known as the 'Cascade Front', and only two have left - Kohler and Colin Porter - both through retirement.

The five that remain have been a fixture in the UW offensive line for the last two years and will continue to be the backbone of the Huskies' offense this coming season. They have combined for 100 starts between them, and that's not counting junior Dexter Charles and his 21 career starts. New UW Offensive Line coach Chris Strausser is going to have a ton of bodies to work with, a dream come true for a new coach.

Who Has the Edge?: Right now, despite Charles' injury at the end of the year, the spring first team OL should line up like this: LT - Micah Hatchie, LG - Dexter Charles, C - Mike Criste, RG - Colin Tanigawa, RT - Ben Riva. The second-string should line up this way: LT - Jake Eldrenkamp, LG - Shane Brostek, C - Siosifa Tufunga, RG - James Atoe, RT - Coleman Shelton. Some of the younger players, like Dane Crane and Andrew Kirkland, should have enough time in the system under their belts to push forward for playing time.

Who Will Step Up?: The biggest thing for the offensive line heading into spring ball is this; just like with every other position group this spring, Strausser will be looking at the offensive line with fresh eyes and a clean slate. Players like Brostek and Fuavai should benefit the most from this change on paper, as they seemed to be players that didn't respond as well to Dan Cozzetto's abrasive, tough love approach. I'd look to those players, as well as all the redshirt frosh, as players to make an impact starting Tuesday.

In Waiting: Washington loses five offensive lineman after the 2014 season, and Strausser has made no secret out of the fact that he would ideally like to recruit like-for-like numbers. Therefore, UW should have signed five offensive linemen for 2014, but they only signed four. There's a few reasons for this, but the main ones were 1) Not enough time to properly evaluate and recruit prior to signing day, a problem with all the positions, and 2) The 2015 in-state offensive line wish list is stocked with talent, with three tackles already offered by the Huskies.

The four signed all played tackle in high school, and Turner and Sosebee look right now to be the ones destined as interior players. Burleson is the biggest project at 6-foot-8, and James is a player Petersen coveted from afar in Boise.

With the numbers the way they are, there's no reason why any of these incoming lineman should be asked to compete for playing time this fall. That will allow them a year to get bigger, faster, and stronger, as well as acclimate themselves to college and their daily routine.

In Summary: It's hard to remember a time when Washington's offensive line was so loaded with experience. It is never a great time to transition to a new way of doing things, but this spring might be as good as it could ever get. If they can avoid injury and stay together as a unit, something they were basically able to do in 2013, there's every reason to believe - as Smith told Softy - the offensive line can be a dominant force in 2014.


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