Washington center Nick Harris picked at an ice cream sandwich during July’s Pac-12 media day, trying to finish the snack before it melted in the 90-degree heat in Hollywood, Calif.
As he worked on dessert, Harris rattled off reasons why the Huskies should have one of the best offensive lines in the country this season. His list was extensive. At the top, though, was perhaps the most important factor: Experience.
Even with the loss of tackle Kaleb McGary, the Huskies return five starters. That’s because All-American Trey Adams is returning after missing most of last year with a back injury. Jared Hilbers — who filled in when Adams was out — is back, too. UW also returns guards Jaxson Kirkland and Luke Wattenberg. As expected, they’ve made up the first-team offensive line during the early days of fall camp.
That morning, as Harris and defensive back Myles Bryant were just beginning their endless rounds of media interviews, Harris and Adams were named to the All-Pac-12 preseason first team.
“We have so much experience,” Harris said. “We have a lot guys who have that passion to play O-Line. They aren’t just doing it because they’re big. Those guys want to be the best O-linemen on the field. We have chemistry. We played together for a while. … We have chemistry that just goes beyond football and that helps us a lot.”
Harris singled out Kirkland, who started as a redshirt freshman last season. It’s promising to see younger players perform well, he said, and there are more potential stars on the roster just waiting for an opportunity. Players like sophomore Henry Bainivalu, who played in all 14 games last season, redshirt freshman Matteo Mele and a talented group of incoming freshmen.
Those players matured during the offseason, Harris said, and they got a boost of confidence through workouts and spring practice. As Harris prepares for his senior season, he’s focused on helping them develop. As the leader of the offensive line, his goal is to leave the room better than he found it.
To Harris, that doesn’t just mean dominating the line of scrimmage. It also means molding players who care about the position, which helps create a group as deep as it is talented. Perhaps more than anything else, Harris wants the third-team linemen to take preparation as seriously as the starters.
“Guys who watch film not because they’re told to, but because they want to,” Harris said. “Guys who are physical in the field. Just that stuff. Sometimes you get groups that just the ones care and because they are twos and threes, they don’t care. I don’t want that to happen when I leave. I want the twos and threes to care just as much.
“You never know when those guys will be plugged in. You never know when somebody could get hurt. Those guys need to know how to play. They need to start taking it seriously when they’re not playing because if they start taking it seriously when they are playing, they’re going to be screwed.”
That hasn’t been much of a problem among UW’s offensive linemen, mostly because Harris said the Huskies take mental preparation just as seriously as the physical aspect.
“Obviously everybody loves the big, physical O-linemen,” he said. “And we do, too. We take pride in that more anything. Line dominance, diminishing the will of the D-line.
“We also got to think in today’s day and age, there’s so many different defenses thrown at you. You got to be able to see things coming before they show it. You got to know down and distance, shot gun, in the span of six seconds as you’re walking up the line. I think that’s the beauty of playing O-line and I think that’s the one thing we all take passion in.”
Last season, the offensive line was opening up holes for Myles Gaskin, who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round of the NFL Draft. While Gaskin was the Huskies’ feature running back, the trio consisting of Salvon Ahmed, Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant received their fair share of opportunities.
While Ahmed is the front-runner to take on most of Gaskin’s load, all three should split snaps this season. Harris is looking forward to seeing more of their individual running styles in the offense.
“We all know how many different running styles they got,” he said. “You got ground and pound guys, you got finesse guys, you got kind of general-type guys. It will be interesting to see how they do and I can’t wait.
“It’s one thing to have a setting running back and obviously Myles (is a legend) but it’s different when you have a rotation. It will be a good aspect of our offense.”