What happened to Washington's offensive line?

Ryan Tolar (K.Grinolds/Dawgman.com)

For years, Washington was known as a physical team that imposed their will on opposing defenses. With arguably one of the best athletes to ever play at Montlake, the questions have been swirling about the lack of production and it all points to an offensive line that struggles to protect the QB or open holes for the backs. Here's a look at how we got here and how to solve the problem...

For years, players like Benji Olson, Chad Ward, Frank Garcia, Ed Cunningham, Kevin Gogan, Lincoln Kennedy, Siupeli Malamala, Blair Bush and many more made Washington a feared opponent, both for their skills as well as their intensity and toughness.

The Huskies imposed their will on opponents throughout the years and produced 1,000-yard backs on a routine basis with Greg Lewis, Rashaan Sheehee, Corey Dillon, Napolean Kaufman among others all eclipsing the mark in their time on Montlake.

Over the past decade, the Huskies have "fallen off the cliff", for lack of a better term, as far as offensive linemen are considered and over the past six seasons, fans and analysts alike have seen the same thing -- an offensive line that can't protect the quarterback or get a yard running the ball when they need it most.

The most glaring example of this lack of push came against Notre Dame last season as the Huskies, driving for a what seemingly would have been a game-clinching touchdown were unable to get RB Chris Polk or Locker across the goal line when they had seven chances from inside the two yard line.

What has happened is a perfect storm of lack of recruiting from previous staffs, a lack of development as well as a lack of talent.

Here's a look at the past four recruiting classes and why Washington lacks the bodies up front right now, but also why there is something to look forward to down the road.

A look at the 2006 recruiting, the players who would be redshirt seniors this year, shows how the problems began.

In that class of 22, the Huskies signed Cody Habben, Ryan Tolar and Matt Sedillo out of high school and added Aaron Mason and Brandon Jefferson out of the JUCO ranks.

Jefferson never made it in and Mason never did much other than on special teams, unable to add size to his rather lean frame.

Sedillo left before the start of the 2009 season, leaving only Habben and Tolar as significant contributors from that class.

While Tolar looked great as a redshirt freshman in 2007, even earning 3rd Team Freshman All-American honors from the Sporting News, he has slowly regressed even though he was moved back to his more natural position of guard for the 2010 season.

Habben was never the most athletic prospect, but he was considered heady and he had enough skills to match up at least equally with most of the defensive ends in the Pac 10.

However, after missing the entire offseason and spring while recovering from rotator-cuff surgery, the fifth-year senior from Sammamish, Washington has looked anything but consistent this fall.

Habben routinely gets off-balance in pass-protection and has bad leverage on running plays. Every now and then he shows off his smarts and makes plays, his recovery of Locker's fumble on the last-minute drive against USC this year was huge, but eventually he reverts back to form and looks completely out of place along a Pac 10 offensive line.

Greg Christine walked on after a standout career at St. Bonaventure High School and eventually earned a scholarship through his hard work. However, he's not very athletic and his lack of footspeed has shown itself most of the season as he's been beaten several times by quick interior defensive linemen.

While both Tolar and Habben have not lived up to the expectations heaped on them for their senior seasons, the question has to be asked -- what is the alternative?

Taking a look at the 2007 class, the 2006 class looks like a boondoggle of prospects as only Skyler Fancher remains from a class of four and he could be on the way out after the season since he's nowhere to be found in the depth.

In addition to Fancher, the Huskies also signed Mark Armelin, Scott Shugert and Emeka Iweka along the offensive line. Nick Wood, who was signed as a defensive tackle prospect, moved over to the offensive line halfway through the season and got his first start against Oregon State in Corvalis and was famously, or infamously, decleated on a pass-rush by All-Pac 10 DT Stephen Paea.

Fancher was offered late by USC, leading many to believe he had what it took to be a three-year starter after getting used to the speed of the game.

While he made a move into the two-deeps as a redshirt freshman in 2008, Fancher struggled with an ankle injury and has never seemed the same since.

When the new coaching staff arrived in December of 2008, it seemed Fancher had a chance to find playing time due to the lack of talent along the line, but he never found his way and struggled with the athleticism and speed of even average Pac 10 defensive linemen.

Wood tried hard, but honestly, he just doesn't have the size, strength or athleticism necessary to be anything but a good practice player.

Armelin and Shugert departed after spring football concluded and Iweka never made it into school.

The 2008 class saw the arrival of Senio Kelemete and Drew Schaefer, two current starters along the offensive line, as well as highly-regarded Mykenna Ikehara who provides depth at the two guard positions as well as the pivot.

Terence Thomas and Allen Carroll both lasted one season before an injury forced Thomas to retire from the sport and Carroll lost interest in the game.

Kelemete is currently playing his third position in three years -- he started out along the defensive line as a freshman and then switched to left guard last season -- and while the results could be called "mixed" about his performance to this point, offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto believes he has what it takes to be an NFL player at the position.

Schaefer played at right tackle last year as a redshirt freshman and held his own, but was moved inside during spring football as the Huskies tried to get their best five offensive linemen on the field.

This week, the Huskies have moved him outside as they continue to find the right combination that will help them move the ball more effectively.

Ikehara has struggled to put on weight since he arrived and was so sick one offseason that he lost about 40 pounds as he recovered from the illness. He entered fall camp weighing 265 pounds and doesn't appear as if he's put on weight since August, although it's rare that a player puts on weight during the season.

When healthy and functioning properly, Ikehara is widely considered the most tenacious of Washington's offensive linemen. We'll see how he progresses, but at this point he doesn't appear to be in Washington's long-range plans.

In head coach Steve Sarkisian's first recruiting class, the one signed in February of 2009, the Huskies had no offensive linemen committed and weren't in on any that fit what the new staff was looking for, so they went out and signed the best one they could in El Camino's Daniel Mafoe.

The problem?

Mafoe didn't make it into school, leaving no line prospects from that class.

Enter the 2010 recruiting class of seven players - Erik Kohler, Colin Porter, Michael Criste, Ben Riva, James Atoe, Micah Hatchie and Colin Tanigawa -- to round things out.

Of this group, Kohler appeared to be the gem of the class when they signed back in February and he's done nothing to dispell that thought so far.

When he finally received significant playing time, the Husky offense actually seemed to move the ball better, both on the ground and through the air.

Save the Nebraska game where the entire Husky offense looked about as inept as it has ever looked in recent years, the Huskies were able to put up 467 yards on Syracuse and nearly 532 against USC.

The talented freshman missed the Arizona State game last week with a case of Mono and with Christine taking his place, the offense seemed to revert to its old ways.

So, there you have it.

Washington has three fifth-year seniors -- Habben, Tolar and Christine -- two of which probably wouldn't even be in the two-deeps of most of the rest of the conference, one fourth-year junior -- Fancher -- who isn't in the two-deeps at all, a junior -- Kelemete -- playing his third position in three years, two third-year sophomores -- Schaefer and Ikehara -- one of which is playing is second position in three years and another who hasn't been able to add size along with two freshmen -- Kohler and Porter -- who are being counted on in the week ahead to be major contributors.

That obviously isn't a recipe for success.

So, if you're reading this, you are probably thinking to yourself -- how does this get better?

First off, patience needs to be employed by those who follow the team.

Fans have the right to bemoan the progress of the program, however, if you take a step back and really look at where the team is talent-wise, particularly along the offensive line, you'll see that the coaching staff is trying to put a bandaid on a hatchet wound.

Second, the Husky coaches have already shown how important they consider the offensive line, signing seven in their first full recruiting class and they are well on their way to signing five this year with the likes of Stanwood's Dexter Charles, Long Beach (Ca.) Jordan's Siosifa Tufunga and Paramount's Maataua Brown already committed.

This staff is relentless in how they recruit and they are likely going to get a visit from standout Arizona lineman Cyrus Hobbi as well as athletic Akeem Gonzales from Bishop Alemany in California.

Narbonne's Dontae Levingston is close with Husky freshman safety Sean Parker who hails from the same school and they made an impression on him when he officially visited back in September.

Also, the future is bright as far as local linemen are concerned with the likes of Josh Garnett (Puyallup), Zach Banner (Lakes) and Nathan Dean (Juanita) all lined up for the 2012 recruiting class and Scout's Brandon Huffman says the 2012 class could feature the deepest line class ever on the west coast with at least 30, including Shane Brostek from Hawaii, likely to be highly-regarded that year.

Lastly, but definitely not least, the Huskies have a good Strength and Conditioning staff in place, led by the ultra-intense Ivan Lewis, who should have the younger players bulked up and ready to go next spring which will create competition up front, something that was missing this past spring.

Tyrone Willingham's S&G guy, Trent Greener, was loathed by the players who, rather than work out at Montlake, preferred to go back to their high schools to work out. That has changed under Lewis, but the S&C program is a long-term fix and won't be noticed for at least another year.

Keep the faith Husky fans, this staff wants to return to the days of yore, when the Huskies had one of the most physically-dominant offensive lines in the country. However, it takes time to develop that and it likely won't happen this season, although the coaches won't give up trying.

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