Where does the offensive line group find itself heading into fall camp?The good news is that Washington’s offensive line will get back two of their key contributors that were out all spring; Dexter Charles and Coleman Shelton. Those two combined for 16 starts in 2014; Sifa Tufunga adds five starts at left guard when Charles was injured.
Therein lies the bad news; Washington brings back a total of 21 starts from last year spread out among two of the five offensive line positions. That means they’ll be breaking in a new left tackle, a new center (although Tufunga has some experience playing the position), and right guard - a spot where Shane Brostek started three games three years ago.
It’s hard not to notice the gaping holes inherited by players talented enough to get the job done, but have not been exposed to Pac-12 defenses yet. That’s a major concern. Much like the defensive backs last year, some had to learn the hard way by taking some lumps. It would be expected the new offensive linemen would suffer growing pains along the way - hopefully not at the expense of Washington’s offense. Brostek was thrown into the fire against Stanford’s defense in 2012, yet the Huskies pulled off the upset that night versus the No. 8 Cardinal - so it can be done.
Going back to silver linings, this is year two of Chris Strausser running the show for the UW offensive line, and as the cliche goes the biggest jump in terms of improvement happens from year one to year two. Washington fans need to believe that will happen with this year’s offensive line starters. It definitely needs to take place with left tackle Jake Eldrenkamp, who has had the benefit of playing the number one spot the last two springs without interruption. He’s the one most out on an island, and if he can provide the stability and consistency of play similar to Hatchie’s last three years, it would be an impressive display of seizing an opportunity.
When lines are younger in nature and veterans are scarce, the idea of replacing players during the season due to injury takes on an even graver nature than normal. Injuries are a part of the game, and that’s why quality depth is as important as anything else in college football. Looking forward, Washington’s offensive line is chock full of talented, yet very green players that traditionally wouldn’t be asked to assume important roles until the experienced players in front of them finished their eligibility. As Don James famously said, ‘The best time to play freshmen is when they’re juniors’.
James would be stunned to see the likes of Trey Adams or Devin Burleson being seriously considered for playing time as true freshmen left tackles, let alone play in games. Yet, that is a very real possibility this fall. High school players are undoubtedly in a much better position physically to handle the rigors of high-major college football now compared to 20 years ago. But catching up to the speed of the game, as well as going up against grown men four or five years older than them still poses as big a challenge to a freshman as it did back in James’ day.
With everyone along the offensive line presumably healthy and ready to go for fall camp, lack of experience appears the only significant stumbling block. Unlike a running back or receiver that, at some point, can rely on his natural instincts once a play is called - offensive linemen are awash in technique and fine details throughout a play that often straddles the fine line between success or getting your quarterback killed. And that’s why a dearth of veterans through UW’s offensive line this year is a very real issue that doesn’t suggest an easy fix, other than to get in there and go through the experience they require to properly develop.
Dexter Charles (6-5, 312, Sr.): Charles was out for most of spring but he’ll be back full force for fall. Besides, the Huskies know what they have in Dexter, who will be a four-year starter by the time he finishes out his UW career. It’s going to be vital for Charles to hit the ground running in August. He needs to show that, while he is the unquestioned leader of the 2015 offensive line group, he still needs to show that he’s 100 percent back and ready to show the young pups the way.
Siosifa Tufunga (6-3, 313, Sr.): Despite starting five games at left guard when Charles was injured, Strausser moved Tufunga to center after the 2014 season. It’s a natural fit and one Tufunga has taken to well. Given his football IQ and ruggedness, Tufunga should be counted on to be the number one center this fall. During spring he wasn’t really challenged by anyone, so it’s his job to lose right now as the team gets really for camp.
Jake Eldrenkamp (6-5, 298, Jr.): I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call Eldrenkamp’s role within the offense as the single most-important this fall. Sure, people will look to the quarterback and all they have to do to move the chains, but if the junior from Bellevue isn’t taking care of their blind side - it won’t matter who is at quarterback. They won’t last long. As previously stated, Eldrenkamp has rolled with the ones for the past two springs pretty much unabated, so his understanding of the position and what’s required is all there. Now it’s simply a matter of watching how he reacts once the ball is snapped for real.
Shane Brostek (6-4, 301, Jr.): Even though the Hawaiian native and son of legendary UW offensive lineman Bern Brostek hasn’t played on offense since his true freshman year, Brostek reappeared on that side of the line this spring and fell right back into his old right guard spot without missing a beat. In fact it was a little scary how little fuss was made during the transition. He played the number one spot all spring long with very little competition from the younger players behind him, and should be the prohibitive favorite to start at right guard when the Huskies travel to Boise State.
Cory Fuavai (6-3, 312, Jr.): All position groups have those upperclassmen that appear to be treading water - or at the very least haven’t captured their coach’s attention to the point where their play has demanded their interest. Such seems to be the case with Fuavai, the junior from Auburn that swapped turns with Dane Crane at left guard all spring with Dexter Charles out of action. Crane appeared to be favored over Fuavai, so it’ll be up to Cory to show Strausser he’s still got some gas in the tank and is ready to make an impact his final two years at Montlake.
Michael Kneip (6-5, 302, Jr.): The former Bellevue standout is the only walk-on offensive lineman at Washington right now, and depending on how things go this fall that status may change. Kneip has worked his way into a very solid backup role behind Sifa Tufunga at center, clearly shooting for the opportunity to start in 2016. Kneip is a rough and tumble interior lineman that has the smarts and nasty to play center, and we’ll see how much drop-off there is between him and Tufunga this fall when the offense requires him to step in at a moment’s notice and assume the role of quarterbacking the offensive line.
Coleman Shelton (6-4, 282, So.): Shelton remains a huge question mark simply because his upper body injury did not allow him to lift in winter or spring. How strong will he be to compete as the Huskies’ main right tackle? He had seven starts there in 2014, doing exactly what others like Jake Eldrenkamp are being asked to do this fall; survive a trial by fire. I don’t think there’s any doubt Shelton has the experience and ability to be Washington’s number right tackle, but he’ll face stiff challenges from players like Matt James and Kaleb McGary this fall. I suspect right tackle will supply the biggest battleground for playing time that’s currently up in the air.
Andrew Kirkland (6-4, 300, So.): The Portland-based Kirkland came to Washington as a tackle, but quickly found himself without a permanent position. Outside of center, Kirkland has given the other four positions a whirl and doesn’t quite have a home yet. He’s certainly talented enough to make a difference somewhere - but where exactly is that ‘somewhere’? Missing a few practices in spring due to injury didn’t help his cause at all, but fall should provide him an opportunity to bounce back and show he’s ready to contribute.
Dane Crane (6-3, 287, So.): Initially brought in by Steve Sarkisian and Dan Cozzetto, Crane was ranked as the top center on the west coast and that seemed to be his destined position. But Strausser moved Crane out to left guard when it was announced Charles wouldn’t participate in spring. He quickly became the number one choice, and obviously would step in again if Dexter got banged up. Crane’s athleticism, intelligence, and versatility mean he could also vie for playing time at center if the need arose. He is one of the better offensive linemen on the team going into his third season, and he may force Strausser’s hand at some point if he keeps improving.
Matt James (6-4, 273, RFr.): Despite being underweight compared to his teammates, James saw a chance to impress at right tackle when Coleman Shelton went down and the Coeur d’Alene native seized the moment. His size and wrestling background came in handy this spring when going up against the likes of Jojo Mathis and some of the smaller, quicker outside linebackers and BUCKs. With Shelton’s return, the battle at right tackle will have officially been joined, and those two won’t be the only ones competing for Strausser’s attention.
Kaleb McGary (6-7, 292, RFr.): The former defensive tackle was moved to the offensive side of the ball in the off-season, and he took to it well. McGary is a supreme athlete for his size, and he’s picked up concepts and techniques very quickly for a big man that’s never played offensive line until this year. McGary needs one more year before he can really explode onto the scene, but his time just might be this fall depending on how everything unfolds. Physically he’s ready right now, and he’s got the confidence and competitive makeup you like to see.
Jesse Sosebee (6-5, 313, RFr.): ‘Boomer’ is a very large human, any way you look at him. Unheralded at the high school level, Sosebee has blossomed under Strausser’s tutelage to the point where he is now firmly ensconced at right guard behind Shane Brostek - and it would probably take an Act of Congress to remove him from that spot. The pairing of Sosebee at right guard and Kaleb McGary at right tackle should have Washington fans watering at the mouth. They could shut down the left side of opposing defenses for years to come.
John Turner (6-3, 282, RFr.): In spring, Turner was asked to compete at left guard with Dexter Charles out and Cory Fuavai not providing enough against Dane Crane. But now that all three will be back in the fall, Turner may find himself back at where he started - center. In fairness, Turner is a player that could be asked to play all three of the interior positions, and play them well. All he needs is seasoning and another year in the weight room to get even bigger, faster, and stronger. But with only Sifa Tufunga and Michael Kneip currently at center, it makes sense that Turner at least backs them up and also can be asked to work in at either guard position in a pinch.
Devin Burleson (6-7, 302, Fr.): In only his first spring, Burleson captured enough of Strausser’s attention to get some serious action at left tackle behind Jake Eldrenkamp. Only problem was the true frosh’s inability to stay healthy. But at 6-7 and 300 pounds, there’s ample reason to be excited by the thought of Burleson along the edge of the offensive line. He’s got the feet and quickness of a basketball player combined with the nasty of a football player. A great combination to have. Now that Trey Adams is on the scene, the battle for playing time behind Eldrenkamp is officially on.
Trey Adams (6-8, 283, Fr.): Quietly, the UW coaches have been waiting for the day when the Wenatchee native would enroll so they could see if he’s ready to step in right away. And from the word we’ve been hearing from his home town, Adams has been with a trainer for the spring and summer, bulking up and preparing himself to play. With his size and experience, Adams could be a shoe in as a red-shirt frosh; after all, no true freshman has ever started for Chris Petersen. But if one had the size, ability, mindset, and nasty - it’s Trey Adams.
Henry Roberts (6-6, 280, Fr.): Roberts has been a coveted recruit ever since he was offered by Steve Sarkisian two-and-a-half years ago. The Bellevue-based Roberts is one in a number of Wolverine recruits that have become Huskies, and he’s one of the best. Roberts combines great size, technique, and attitude into a 6-foot-6 package that saw the Huskies beat out teams like Stanford, USC, Oregon, UCLA, Wisconsin, and others for his services. Even though Roberts played all across the Bellevue offensive line (and defensive line), he’ll most likely start out at guard for the Huskies.
Jared Hilbers (6-6, 279, Fr.): Hilbers is the classic project; a player that had decent offers but not elite offers, a player with the size, ability and desire that coaches love to take a chance on. Linemen need to be developed at the college level, and Chris Strausser looked to Hilbers as a player he wants to develop over time. Hilbers wants to be a Husky and went to great lengths to show that to the coaches - who reciprocated that yearning with a scholarship offer. Hilbers won’t have to start repaying that offer right away - he’ll have time. But there’s no doubt that with his measurables, as well as his intangibles, Hilbers could be a very good college football player in a couple of years.
Projected Fall OL Depth Chart
Jake Eldrenkamp (6-5, 298, Jr.)
Andrew Kirkland (6-4, 300, So.) OR
Devin Burleson (6-7, 302 Fr.) OR
Trey Adams (6-8, 283, Fr.)
Dexter Charles (6-5, 312, Sr.)
Dane Crane (6-3, 287, So.)
Cory Fuavai (6-3, 312, Jr.)
Siosifa Tufunga (6-3, 313, Sr.)
Michael Kneip (6-5, 302, Jr.)*
John Turner (6-3, 283, RFr.)
Shane Brostek (6-4, 301, Jr.)
Jesse Sosebee (6-5, 313, RFr.)
Henry Roberts (6-6, 280, Fr.)
Right Tackle: Coleman Shelton (6-4, 282, So.)
Matt James (6-4, 273, RFr.)
Kaleb McGary (6-7, 292, RFr.)
Jared Hilbers (6-6, 279, Fr.)