Cozzetto's Way is Sarkisian's Way

SEATTLE - Washington comes into their 2009 season with a completely rebuilt offensive line. Starters have been moved, non-starters elevated and defensive linemen switched in order to create a Husky offensive line athletic enough and tough enough to withstand the marathon of Pac-10 play.

"We have people competing for positions," UW Offensive Line Coach Dan Cozzetto said this week, repeating the same key thoughts that new head coach Steve Sarkisian has been talking about all spring and fall. "And it's all about competition and opportunity. There's plenty of opportunity, so I'm going to create as much competition as I can."

He's also revamped everything that was Washington's 2008 line, one responsible for a 2.8 yards-per-carry average in the run game and 31 sacks surrendered. Gone are three starters from last year; center Juan Garcia, left guard Jordan White-Frisbee and right guard Casey Bulyca.

Ben Ossai, who started at left tackle last season, has been moved inside to left guard, replaced by Cody Habben, who played all of 2008 at right tackle, minus the Apple Cup. Ryan Tolar, who has started 19 games and played in 25 during his three years at Montlake.

Clear as mud, right? Well, add in Senio Kelemete, who moved to right guard from his defensive tackle spot in spring, and bump up Drew Schaefer to right tackle, a redshirt freshman, and you have the makings of Washington's offensive line for 2009. I also forgot to add in Nick Scott, a transfer tackle from Drake, as well as Greg Christine, in his fourth year as a walk-on interior lineman from southern California.

Hawkeye and Trapper would be proud of that M.A.S.H. unit. It's been cobbled together with duct tape and bailing wire, but if given enough time they could meld into a pretty cohesive front five with some size and athleticism. But therein lies the problem; they have no time. Their opener against LSU is 16 days away, and very little is settled in the way of who is going to play where along the offensive line.

"The focus is having an offensive front that can run the football and develop some enthusiasm and excitement," Cozzetto said. "And we have to take care of the quarterback. He has to come out of each game with a sound mind and clean jersey. If not, we have no foundation. And they have to understand that. And they do.

"What I ask them to do is real simple: Play as fast as you can. Run as fast as you can. Display courage. And those things take no athleticism whatsoever. If you do that - show heart - the rest takes care of itself. Other people see that and what it's all about. You care about being on this football team and being a Husky."

"The starters will start come LSU," added Schaefer. "Until then it can be a new guy every day. I think the coaches want to see how we respond to change and how we work with other players. There's nothing wrong with competition."

Competition is what is allowing players like Scott and Christine a chance to play. With Ossai moved inside and Skyler Fancher still not 100 percent from a broken leg sustained in the spring, Scott is thriving. He is currently battling tooth and nail with Schaefer for that starting right tackle spot.

"When you watch film and you learn that there are people pushing you, it's easy to make a mistake and you're with the second string," Schaefer said. "You have to stay on your A game, don't get lazy with your playbook and stay on top of your technique. You just have to know in the back of your mind that someone will always be behind you if you mess up."

"You have to make a decision; where are you at with your game?" added Cozzetto. "Are you mature enough? Are you handling things the way you're supposed to be handling them at this stage? Some of these guys are young, so they have to grow up. They have to understand the retention level that they have to have. They can't come out here and think. They have to come out here and react.

"I have no problems if they are going fast and are going in the right direction and competing. We can take care of the rest. It's when there's blown assignment errors and things like that where you risk getting guys hurt."

With regime change comes the idea of breaking poor habits. "It takes a while, but you have to change that right now, because we are not going to move one iota," Cozzetto said. "I've got to keep my feet on them all the time, because they have to be held accountable.

"It comes down to get-off. If someone is playing faster than you, you're going to have a lot of assignment errors. All of a sudden if you're struggling to get things done, to do things that aren't fundamentally sound, you start to revert back to your old comfort zone and what you thought was acceptable before we got here.

And that's where the off-season conditioning and strength training will hopefully start to pay dividends. But according to Cozzetto they aren't where they need to be yet. Not by a longshot.

"The biggest thing is that we're not in great game shape where we can take 10, 12 straight plays," he said. "That's my responsibility to get them in game shape. Sooner or later they are going to understand that we're going to be on drives where there's going to be 10, 12 plays. And it's going to be hot, it's going to be miserable. And they are going to have to perform when they are miserable. And that's where they are at right now at this stage of camp. Their legs are tired, so you have to build them mentally and drive them."

Kelemete might be the most inexperienced of the starting group, but he's shown Cozzetto that he cares about being a winner. He helped turn around a Burien Evergreen program, and he's ready to make to do the same this fall.

"He's a competitor," Cozzetto said of the 6-foot-4, 281-pound sophomore. "Those are the type of guys that you want. They have a burning desire to win, to become better all the time. He makes very few mistakes. Now he just has to continue to develop confidence in his game. That's where he's at. He takes it upon himself where he's not going to be beat, or get embarrassed. He takes it to heart. It's personal with him. That's the attitude you have to have when you want to play football for me."

Christine is one of the other players who has taken up the battle cry. He had played only center up until this spring, but the junior from Camarillo, Calif. has shown his versatility in playing guard and moving up the ranks as a result. He's entrenched in the two-deeps and is looking to stay there.

"It's definitely been different, but I felt like I could do it and the coaches felt confident in me," said 'Preach'. "It's been about opportunity, and when that opportunity presents itself, you have to take it."

They key to the line just might come down to communication, and that all starts with Tolar, the converted guard. The Pasco native has dropped nearly 30 pounds off his 2008 playing weight, but according to Cozzetto, he needs to shed some the bulk that he's placed on his own shoulders in the form of expectation.

"He tries to do too much sometimes," Cozzetto said. "He tries to overcommunicate. He knows the system. He knows what he's doing. He wants to make sure everyone else knows. What I want him to do is just play. Make your calls and let those guys execute. They have to anticipate a call even when they may not hear it, anticipate what's going on."

Cozzetto couldn't anticipate the leg whip he received early in camp, a big bandage wrapped around his calf there as a not-so-gentle reminder of what can happen when things go wrong on the offensive line.

Did it stop him or even slow him down? Not a chance. He never skipped a beat.

"I'm not going to change," he said with a smile. It's clear that his way is the only way the Huskies are going to get better up front. The irony, however, is that they are going to have to continue to make big changes and take advantage of all the opportunities afforded to them. And all of that is a byproduct of competition..

"It comes down to not only when we get together in team, but this competition also comes in the film room, it comes in the individuals, it comes in our walk-throughs - it's a constant cycle," Schaefer said.

"You always have to be on your A game." Top Stories