Mid-Spring Review: Offensive Line

It's cliche to say that the game of football is won or lost in the trenches, but it's also been widely discussed how - especially with the departures of Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins - the Washington offensive line is going to be an even bigger component to their success or failure in 2014.

With 121 combined starts between the top six most-experienced UW offensive linemen, Husky fans could be looking at the most veteran offensive line group ever assembled at Montlake, and that really is saying something.

On paper, if you looked at where Washington's strengths and weaknesses were going to be this upcoming season, it's easy to see how 2014 would be a good time for a coaching transition - if there ever is a good time. With an offensive line loaded with senior leadership, the new staff could lean on them to set the tone and shepherd the offense through the changeover from Steve Sarkisian to Chris Petersen.

Ironically, new Offensive Line Coach Chris Strausser looks at the amount of offensive line experience a tad differently. He's clearly focused on the developmental side of the equation.

"I wish all of those guys were sophomores so we had a year under their belt and they also had a few years to hang around here and get to know me better and all that good stuff," Strausser told Dawgman.com back in January. "There's no substitute for experience, we all know that, especially for an offensive lineman particularly at the college level, a guy that's been in the game and understands the urgency and how fast things truly happen, it goes a long, long way. I really haven't had a chance to study these guys on film yet, I've met them, once, in a position meeting for 15 minutes, and now they're coming through the offices and I'm getting a chance to sit down and say hello a little bit, so I don't know a lot about the group other than the fact that there's a lot of guys who have played some football and that goes a long, long way. Obviously, that being said, a lot of seniors next year, so now it's a great, great urgency to develop those younger guys behind them. So the quicker I can get to know those guys and see what their strengths and weaknesses are and see what we need to recruit, the better of we're going to be."

As there always is, there are going to be additional speed bumps on the transitional road to Progress, and when it comes to the Washington Huskies offensive line, it comes in the form of injuries. Starting left tackle Micah Hatchie and starting left guard Dexter Charles are both out for spring, leaving Strausser with multiple jobs; not only guide his new linemen through what he wants to see out of them in practice in terms of techniques and fundamentals, but he has to do it knowing that he won't be able to personally work with the starting left side of his line until at least August.

Even Strausser noted a couple weeks back that - despite the injury issues - he falls in line with Petersen's idea of not trying to 'win' spring, and instead focus on getting his guys prepared for what they'll have to deal with in the fall.

"I think it really helps in the fall when we get into 'game-mode' because those older guys actually know what it's like to be in a game," he told Dawgman.com's Scott Eklund. "Now, with all of this going on, they're hearing French and I'm speaking Spanish, so we're having to work through some things because these guys have been here for four or five years and they were used to one thing and now I'm throwing some new stuff at them whereas the younger guys adapt a little easier because they haven't been here that long and don't have as much experience with another system. Eventually those, those older guys will make a difference in games though and that's what we're focused on down the road."
Offensive Line:
70 James Atoe - Sr.
78 Mike Criste - Sr.
59 Ben Riva - Sr.
64 Colin Tanigawa - Sr.
65 Siosifa Tufunga - Jr.
60 Shane Brostek - Jr.
62 Ross Dolbec - Jr. Walk-On
52 Jake Eldrenkamp - So.
69 Cory Fuavai - So.
63 Taylor Hindy - So.
67 Michael Kneip - So. Walk-On
55 Dane Crane - RFr.
73 Andrew Kirkland - RFr.
79 Coleman Shelton - RFr.

What have they done in practice? - This is the part of the analysis where I would break down what each player has done so far through the first two weeks, strengths and weaknesses - but with both the offensive and defensive lines I fully admit to copping out here because they simply haven't had a chance to take anyone to the ground yet. I was hoping that once the full pads were on we'd see at least a little bit of scrimmaging - and Petersen does do that - but they don't do it in a way that allows 'full' contact. It's more than just 'thud' tempo, but at the same time it's also not full game-style conditions. So in that sense it's extremely hard to gauge where the position group really is right now.

The other part of the calculation for Strausser during spring is his ability - taking his analogy for a second - to get all the offensive linemen who are 'hearing French' to start 'speaking Spanish'. In order to do that, it takes constant care and attention toward the details and a singular focus on repetition to turn that into muscle memory - to the point where the players can just play and not have to think about what they are being asked to do.

With all that happening - as it is with every position group during this transitional period - there's a lot more learning going on and a lot less playing. Clearly it's much easier to quantify 'progress' with skill players because they are the ones that create the yards after the catch, the touchdowns, the turnovers. With linemen, it's much, much harder to measure the level of progress made.

Where does the position stand after two weeks? - That's why, instead, I'll look at progress a little differently with both offensive and defensive line groups; where they've lined up. Again, this is a fundamentally flawed approach, simply because coaches want to incorporate as many line combinations possible on film to be able to study and determine what has worked best - so creating a depth chart is problematic at best.

Add to it the injuries that have kept Hatchie and Charles from their expected roles as starters, and that process looks even shadier in the cold light of day. That being said, it's the best way I can measure forward movement, especially given that Strausser has only had two weeks to work with the OL.

The biggest position movement would have to be Siosifa Tufunga to the No. 1 spot at left guard ahead of Colin Tanigawa, who is behind James Atoe at the No. 2 right guard position. It's surprising that 'Panda' hasn't moved back to the left guard position - one he held as a starter before getting hurt in 2012 and relinquishing that spot to Charles - but Strausser told Eklund that Tufunga has been a pleasant surprise so far, as has been starting right tackle Ben Riva. Strausser said earlier that, while he's never played a true frosh before, he's played a ton of redshirt frosh - so he's not afraid to work with younger talent and provide them opportunities to show their worth.

"I've really been happy with Sifa because he really hasn't played much at all in games yet, but he's looked really good to me so far and ready to go and then you have Ben Riva out here doing his thing," said Strausser. "He's a really good leader and talented and you can see that when he's out here. "

Riva, in particular, is just a house right now when you stand next to him - a sturdy, robust Colonial.

The left tackle position has been more difficult to gauge, because under former UW Offensive Line Dan Cozzetto, Hatchie's replacement would have most likely been either Riva or Charles. Strausser doesn't have Charles to choose from, and if Riva has gotten looks on that side of the formation it hasn't been a noticeable number of reps.

Instead it's been a sophomore and redshirt freshman - Jake Eldrenkamp and Andrew Kirkland - who have taken that position over in Hatchie's absence. They have put Strausser's philosophy to the test, and so far it seems to have worked out fine. Again, it's extremely difficult to measure headway given the fact that they are still thinking more than playing - and the same is also true for the defensive linemen.

Washington fans have been waiting for Shane Brostek to show signs that he's ready to fully step out of the sizable shadow of legacy left by his father Bern, but that hasn't happened yet. The 6-foot-4, 287-pound Brostek has gained 10 pounds during the off-season and Strausser has been intrigued with what the junior might be able to do backing up Mike Criste at center. His Dad was a winner of the Morris Trophy and an eight-year pro at center, so UW fans have to hope this particular apple hasn't fallen far from the tree.

Coleman Shelton spent time on Sarkisian's depth chart as a true freshman last year at right tackle behind Riva and walk-on Ross Dolbec, and the same holds true so far this spring. In fact, the right tackle spot is the only position along the offensive line that I can tell that hasn't had some sort of turnover or hasn't been affected during the coaching transition.

What to look for in the second half of spring - I'd love to think Petersen, Jonathan Smith, and Strausser will open things up a bit, let a little bit of tackling into the proceedings and give us a full preview of coming attractions when it comes to what the offensive and defensive lines are capable of doing this fall, but that's never going to happen. To paraphrase Sarkisian for a second, Petersen has a system in place for development that has stood the test of time, and he's not going to deviate from it just because he's made the move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12.

What we might be able to look forward to is more movement within our malleable - and completely unofficial - depth chart. Will Tufunga keep his place at left guard, or will Tanigawa make a move to see more time at his old spot? Knowing Charles will be available in the fall, does it make more sense to continue to develop Tufunga now, knowing that quality depth is going to be a key ingredient to any success the Huskies have in 2014? Or will it be more important to get healthy players like Tufunga and Tanigawa as many reps at both guard spots to make sure they have the versatility needed to step in in a pinch? I see compelling arguments for both cases; it's up to Strausser to know the best path to take and fortunately for UW fans it's a road he knows very, very well.

And to me, maybe the most interesting battle will be between Brostek and redshirt frosh Dane Crane at the backup center spot behind Criste. Brostek may have some career starts and the veteran's edge in this matchup, but Crane comes in with a pedigree and some serious hype from his former head coach.

"Dane Crane is a young man who we identified as a real potential All-Conference, All-American type center," Sarkisian said of Crane when he signed him a little over a year ago. "He is a guy who's got football in his blood. His father played collegiate football in this conference (USC). Great kid, great leader, he really is one of the leaders of this class when you start talking about guys that guys related to and wanted to be around and that's what a center is supposed to be. That's what he is supposed to be."

"At Boise, we never played a guy as a true freshman along the offensive line, but we played plenty of guys as redshirt freshmen," added Strausser. "I think that's been a pretty good model for us and I'd love to be able to stick with that -- give a kid a chance to get in here, get in the weight room, get his body mature like it needs to be."

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