Before the Washington Huskies began fall camp, first-year coach Chris Petersen sat at a table outside on a sunny, late-July, weekday afternoon in Hollywood, California, and he was asked about how nice it must be to have such depth along both the offensive and defensive lines.
He agreed with half of that assessment.
“I don’t see the same depth on the defensive line as I do on the offensive line,” Petersen said at the Pac-12 Conference media days. “These guys have all played a lot.”
That is not in dispute. The Huskies return six offensive linemen with starting experience, as well as others who saw the field in 2013.
There is left tackle Micah Hatchie, a fifth-year senior and two-year starter.
There is left guard Dexter Charles, a fourth-year junior and two-year starter.
Colin Tanigawa, formerly a guard, appears the most likely candidate to start at center. He’s a fifth-year senior with nearly two full seasons of starting experience. UW’s other center option is Mike Criste, another fifth-year senior who started every game last season at center.
James Atoe, who appears to have locked down the starting right guard position, is a 6-foot-7, 381-pound fifth-year senior with experience as a starter and backup. And right tackle Ben Riva — yet another fifth-year senior — started every game in 2013.
In other words: if the Huskies fail to protect the quarterback or create holes suitable for running through, it will not be for lack of experience.
Offensive line coach Chris Strausser said that the number of bodies at the position — 19 — “gives us the chance to have the type of competition that we have.”
Of the experience among the starters, he said, “that’s a bonus.”
Hatchie and Charles pointed to communication as an area of needed improvement from a year ago, when the offensive line blocked well enough for Bishop Sankey to gain 1,870 yards, but also allowed 30 sacks. The year before, they allowed 38, tied for 102nd in the country (out of 120 teams). There’s a reason former quarterback Keith Price was hobbled for a significant portion of his career as a starter.
Communication will be key to eliminating mistakes in 2014.
“Probably just communicating a little bit better,” Hatchie said, when asked where he feels the group can improve. “Even though we played together last year, all of us, there’s still improvement where we can communicate better, execute our schemes.”
Strausser said he didn’t watch much game film of last season, focusing instead on evaluating players’ performances during winter conditioning and spring practices.
Hatchie and Charles were a bit behind in that regard because both sat out spring drills while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. When fall camp started, they worked with the No. 2 offensive line — Jake Eldrenkamp and Siosifa Tufunga took reps with the starters — but eventually played their way back to the starting roles most anticipated them to have.
“We all communicate together well,” said Charles, a graduate of Stanwood High School. “We know how each other plays. We know how we can trust each other.”
The most intriguing position battle, then, is at center, where it was assumed that Criste would maintain his starting spot. But coaches have raved about Tanigawa’s aggression and tenacity, even though he’s the smallest of the starting group at 6-3, 292 pounds.
“He’s done a really good job this fall camp taking charge out there,” Strausser said. “Fundamentally, he’s done some things really well, and I think center’s a better fit for him in the long run.”
Strausser said Tanigawa and Criste will play in UW’s Aug. 30 season opener at Hawaii. It’s likely some other reserves such as Eldrenkamp, Tufunga, and juniors Ross Dolbec and Shane Brostek might get some playing time, too.
Not that Strausser is necessarily set on the starting lineup just yet.
“I still think there’s room for some movement,” he said. “I think we’re close to having an idea of who they are, but even going into game one, I don’t plan on playing just five guys. There’s more than five guys that have a chance of getting in that game regardless of rotation.”