Post-Spring Review: Offensive Line

Starting Wednesday, Dawgman.com will be breaking down all the position groups to see where the Washington Huskies stand after the first 15 practices of the Chris Petersen Era. Up now is the last - but certainly not least - group of the Washington offense, the offensive line.

Arguably the most experienced and talented collection of linemen assembled in recent memory, can they lead a young group of skill players to success?
Left Tackle:
72 Micah Hatchie - Sr.
52 Jake Eldrenkamp - So.
79 Coleman Shelton - RFr.


Left Guard:
76 Dexter Charles - Jr.
65 Siosifa Tufunga - Jr.
69 Cory Fuavai - So.
67 Michael Kneip - So. walk-on


Center:
78 Mike Criste - Sr.
64 Colin Tanigawa - Sr. OR
55 Dane Crane - RFr.


Right Guard:
70 James Atoe - Sr.
64 Colin Tanigawa - Sr.
60 Shane Brostek - Jr.
63 Taylor Hindy - So.


Right Tackle:
59 Ben Riva - Sr.
62 Ross Dolbec - Jr. walk-on
73 Andrew Kirkland - RFr.


What did they do in the spring? - There was probably no position that played around with different spots and different combinations more than the offensive line. That's not an earth-shattering observation, but it is important to note because starters Micah Hatchie and Dexter Charles were out. That's not only 47 combined career starts lost, but also the starting left side of Washington's 2103 offensive line. That changes a lot of the perspective on what the offensive line did in spring.

If anything, it was as much to build quality depth and give players that wouldn't normally be getting meaningful snaps tons of first team reps. But at the end of the day, when you have seven returning linemen with starts - and 124 total starts between them - it's not surprising spring would be as much about building quality depth and working toward the future.

Jake Eldrenkamp at left tackle and Siosifa Tufunga at left guard were the recipients of Hatchie and Charles being out, and from all accounts they took advantage of the situation - Tufunga in particular. "He's done a nice job for us, he's shown nice leadership out there," new Offensive Line Coach Chris Strausser said of the 6-foot-3, 321-pound junior. He's got really, really good energy there, so he stands out as a guy that rallies the troops a little bit. In terms of his skill set, he's good. He's strong and he can move."

Eldrenkamp is much like Hatchie in that he's not necessarily known for his rough play or nasty demeanor, but he's a well-skilled technician that needed the work this spring to take that next natural step in his development. Charles and starting right tackle Ben Riva were the backups to Hatchie last season, so it's smart thinking by the new UW staff to start developing some of their younger talent, including redshirt frosh Coleman Shelton - who was listed on UW's official two-deeps at right tackle for much of last year but has started to show some ability as a left tackle - and fellow redshirt frosh right tackle Andrew Kirkland.

Strausser noted Shelton's competitive nature as something that kept showing up on film during the 15 spring practices, and Kirkland's quick feet and overall athleticism was on full display at the end of spring when he was the only lineman to be able to stop a penalty kick in S&C Coach Tim Socha's Competition Period. He did it in full pads.

Junior walk-on Ross Dolbec is another player that is starting to come into his own in the depth. He's played in 15 games the past two seasons for Washington and was a stalwart at right tackle behind Ben Riva this spring, getting plenty of meaningful reps when Riva's school schedule didn't allow him to participate in practice.

Where does the position stand heading into the summer? - Strausser was quoted early in spring when asked about the transition to coaching new players, and he said it was akin to him speaking French and the players hearing Spanish. In that case, hopefully by the end of spring they melded into a kind of Esperanto that allowed Strausser to get his concepts taught but also allowed the players to incorporate some familiar language for any changes they would need to make at the line of scrimmage.

Many of the players noted that Strausser was teaching them a lot more combination blocking schemes than what Dan Cozzetto did while he was the UW Offensive Line Coach. It's something the senior leaders of the group - and there are a lot of them - can work on during the summer as they rep through their one-on-ones with the defensive linemen.

Because so many of the younger linemen were able to get in a ton of work during the 15 spring practices, it's given Strausser a lot of film on players at multiple positions. Senior Colin Tanigawa, looking as strong as ever suffering a knee injury at the beginning of the 2012 season, has become the Swiss Army Knife of the OL, playing right guard and center this past spring. He started his career off at left tackle before his injury played him as the Wally Pipp to Charles' Lou Gehrig. But that doesn't mean Tanigawa hasn't been able to make the most of his opportunities. Clearly Strausser likes what ‘Panda' does on the offensive line, and the fact that he is in direct competition with redshirt frosh Dane Crane for the number-two center spot and with James Atoe for the number-one right guard spot at the same time is testament to that.

"He's very athletic, he can run well," Strausser said when asked about giving Tanigawa a look at center. "He runs as well as anybody in the group, along with Shane Brostek. I'm trying to move guys around as much as I can, quite honestly. We're really not in the mode right now of who the starters are and who is going to be at what spot. I want to see in spring who can do what. The center spot I've always felt is always the most important spot in the line. We need to develop some good, strong depth there. If we've got five guys that can snap, great."

The last two snappers are yet to be determined, but in Criste, Tanigawa and Crane Washington has three very capable centers for now and into the future. Clearly Strausser will have to immediately put one of the incoming frosh in at center to start building that depth (John Turner?), but Crane has the look of a guy that could be a three-year starter by the time it's all said and done.

What to look for in the fall - I think the biggest storyline of the fall will be when the battle is joined by Hatchie and Charles, to not only see how they integrate into the offensive line once they are cleared to practice (and they are on track to be cleared in plenty of time for fall camp), but also to see how those competition works out and just how well players like Eldrenkamp and Tufunga took advantage of the opportunities given them in the spring. It's doubtful Eldrenkamp will seriously challenge Hatchie for the number one left tackle spot, but could Tufunga give Charles a run for his money? It's not out of the realm.

Many think Tanigawa has a chance to unseat Criste at center, but I don't see that happening. Criste is a vocal leader along the OL and is the incumbent. He looked very comfortable this spring getting his work in. Conversely, Tanigawa hadn't been asked to snap a ton before and it showed up in spring when he wasn't necessarily on point with some center-quarterback exchanges. Panda is obviously a tough, talented player who will come good in time at center, but in my opinion the center battle will be between him and Crane for the backup spot.

Tanigawa could be in the middle of a couple line battles. Even though Atoe was the one in spring that was getting first team reps, Tanigawa has shown that when he's on his game it's hard to keep him off the field. Either way, having a quality player like Tanigawa available for a few spots means he holds incredible value for Strausser heading into the fall.

When completely healthy, only the defensive line rivals the offensive line when it comes to quality proven starters with solid depth across the board. The offensive line came into spring as a strength, and nothing they did in the 15 practices has given me the impression that they've taken a step back. If anything, by allowing the younger players quality reps and to mix them in with the veterans while they get their work in could be seen as a master stroke by Strausser in the long run. Ideally you want to have all the ammunition at your disposal from the start - but if you can allow for the fact that the senior offensive lineman are well-equipped to adapt to whatever is thrown their way it means Strausser was able to get a jump-start on 2015 and beyond by incorporating a lot of young players to his style and way of doing things early.

Obviously a lot more will be revealed in fall, but if Hatchie and Charles were able to assimilate a lot of the mental side of the new teachings in the film room, giving players like Eldrenkamp and Tufunga full springs to ramp up their development will only pay dividends down the road. In a perfect world they wouldn't be asked to play right away, but if something drastic happened it won't be like they were just thrown to the wolves. They have some practical playing time - 24 games with some reps, to be exact - but with a full spring behind them they should be that much better to handle the heat if thrown into the fire.


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