At first, the Washington Huskies’ offensive linemen focus on learning a single position — the one they play — and no others. So in their first season, as offensive line coach Chris Strausser puts it, “they’re trying to fight for their life to figure out what they’re doing on every play.”
Eventually, though, Strausser wants them to learn every position on the o-line. To ensure such mental versatility, he administers tests as UW’s linemen age, asking them to write down on paper which maneuvers each other lineman is supposed to perform in a given circumstance. No matter if the left tackle will only ever play left tackle. He still needs to know what the left guard, center, right guard and right tackle are going to do on every play.
It’s not easy to learn that many positions. It’s even more difficult — and uncommon — to actually play them all. But Coleman Shelton is about to.
Once the 6-foot-4, 292-pound fourth-year junior from Pasadena, California, takes his first snap at center in 2016 — and it appears a near-certainty, barring injury, that he will start there — Shelton will have played all five offensive line positions in his two-plus seasons with the Huskies.
He began at right tackle, a replacement for injured senior Ben Riva to start the 2014 season. As a third-year sophomore in 2015, Shelton began the season as the Huskies’ starting left tackle, but injuries to other linemen necessitated a move to left guard after two games. After two more games, more shuffling resulted in a switch to right guard, where he started UW’s final seven games of the season.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal to me,” Shelton said of the position changes. “Just preparing every day and knowing my assignment. I could kind of just visualize the technique. The stance wasn’t that big of a deal to me. It didn’t really faze me that much.”
Strausser actually wanted him to play center last season — he spent that winter practicing his shotgun snaps — but a shoulder injury forced Shelton to miss all of spring practice, and thus miss 15 workouts-worth of valuable repetition. Fifth-year senior Siosifa Tufunga moved from guard to center instead, and Shelton bounced around everywhere else.
Now, he’s the guy snapping the ball to quarterback Jake Browning. He’s been practicing snaps all winter, trying to bank as many reps as possible before the season, though he says “it’s different from when there’s nobody in front of you and you’re practicing by yourself to a 330-pound guy right in your face, snapping the ball and trying to get it accurate back there.”
Learning the center position, Shelton said, is a little more complex than switching back and forth between guard and tackle.
“You’re just in the middle of the line, you’ve got to set square and everything’s in front of you,” he said. “You’re not really picking a side either way. You’ve just got to be able to do both.”
Strausser says Shelton’s role is not unlike that of the quarterback. It’s his job to rally his teammates, and in turn, his teammates have to want to rally for him.
“He’s athletic, he’s very smart, he is the leader in our group,” Strausser said. “Guys respond well to him.”
The rest of UW’s offensive line has required some patchwork this spring. Several players have missed several practices due to injury. In fact, Shelton and right guard Shane Brostek are the only members of what is currently the first-string offensive line who haven’t been limited for health reasons.
Left tackle Trey Adams is healthy now, but missed a few practices due to an undisclosed injury. Guards Jake Eldrenkamp and Michael Kneip have each been held out of practice at some point, though each has participated fully in recent practices. Kaleb McGary, the presumptive starting right tackle, sustained a knee injury that has kept him out of action the past three weeks. He just resumed early-practice warm-up drills on Wednesday.
“We’ve had some troubles, but we’re still short on a couple guys and it’s just kind of hard when you don’t have the numbers,” said Adams, a sophomore from Wenatchee. “But overall, we’re learning the offense pretty well and grinding.”
Adams started nine games at left tackle as a true freshman, and says Shelton “taught me all the plays and everything. … (He’s) kind of our leader on the o-line, makes most of the calls and echoes them down to me. He’s really stable inside, so it’s nice.”
Adams, Eldrenkamp, Shelton, Brostek and McGary each have starting experience. So does tackle Andrew Kirkland, backup center Matt James and guard Jesse Sosebee, though each is still relatively green, experience-wise.
Strausser doesn’t like to offer broad assessments about his group during spring, and Shelton similarly focuses on little other than the day’s task. But he does acknowledge that returning some experience — rather than breaking in several new starters, like last season — means they “definitely feel a lot more confident going into the season than last year.”
He hopes that means a “more dominant and more unified and cohesive” offensive front in 2016. The Huskies are glad to have Shelton in the center of that effort.
“To me,” Strausser said, “he’s a guy that’s a perfect fit for that spot.”