Spring Battles to Watch - Offensive Line

Will Riva impress this spring? (Dawgman.com)

It's a truism in football; the game is won up front. The battles in the trenches sets up everything else that happens. And for the first time since the 2007-2008 season, Washington shouldn't have to break in a starter; eight returners with starting experience should ensure that. But that doesn't mean there won't be some real battles with some newcomers this spring.

Offensive Line:
Erik Kohler, Jr. 6-4 299
Colin Tanigawa, Jr. 6-3 281
Micah Hatchie, Jr. 6-5 293
James Atoe, Jr. 6-6 335
Ben Riva, Jr. 6-6 302
Michael Criste, Jr. 6-5 295
Dexter Charles, So. 6-4 292
Siosifa Tufunga, So. 6-2 307
Shane Brostek, So. 6-4 280
Ross Dolbec, So. 6-6 300 (Walk-On)
Ben Teichman, So. 5-11 274 (Walk-On)
Jake Eldrenkamp, RFr. 6-5 292
Nathan Dean, RFr. 6-5 282
Cory Fuavai, RFr. 6-3, 310
Taylor Hindy, RFr. 6-4 295
Michael Kneip, RFr. 6-4 299 (Walk-On)

Health is Everything: The Huskies have 16 current offensive linemen heading into Spring Football, and that's a decent number. But when you break it down the digits start to disintegrate rather quickly. For starters, it includes three walk-on players, so it's really only 13 scholarship players. Ross Dolbec and Michael Kneip are players that could actually earn some playing time in the fall, so that's one silver lining. But when you also factor in that Colin Tanigawa will be completely out and Erik Kohler very limited for spring, now the number of available scholarship offensive linemen is 11 - which brings UW back to the same problems they've had for a number of years with their OL; depth concerns.

That's why it's beyond critical that they don't lose any more players to injury. Washington has certainly suffered their fair share along the offensive line, and last year it forced them to start true frosh and redshirt frosh. As with most spring football outcomes, the most important to the Huskies is that they get through it with their work accomplished and have all their players upright and ready to go for summer.

Trying to hit 75: A few years back someone tried to quantify how good an offensive line could be based on the number of starts they had. If you had at least 75 starts between your projected starting five, that was the threshold to gain to be considered 'experienced', which was the indicator for being 'good'. Using that barometer, Washington doesn't register. In fact if you take all eight returners with starting experience they have a combined 79 starts, but if you take Tanigawa's starts away since he won't be available for spring, that number is 66. Take Kohler's numbers away and now the number starts to look really poor; 48.

The may point that can be gleaned from this is that 2012 was a year where a lot of offensive linemen got broken in and a lot of combinations were tried. Kohler and Tanigawa are the only two returners that have more than one year starting experience, and only Micah Hatchie and Dexter Charles have more than 10 starts from 2012. So while it's factually true they have enough returning starters to not have to break new ones in this spring, it's not a big enough stretch to think they are fully battle-tested right now. Add to the fact that the OL will not have one senior on it in 2013 and you can see where this is headed; it's going to be another year of trial and tribulation to find a starting five that can play together for the full season. As a matter of reference, the last time that happened at Washington was 1994.

Finding the Next Quarterback of the Offensive Line: Washington had only one senior OL graduate in 2012, but he was arguably the most important one - center Drew Schaefer and his 43 career starts. Put that up against the other four starting linemen in the Vegas Bowl and their combined career starts - 39 - and you'll see how important this spring session is as Dan Cozzetto starts the search for UW's next center.

There are players already in the mix taylor-made for the position. Sophomore Shane Brostek is the son of UW legendary center Bern Brostek. After moving to DL half-way through 2012 to find playing time, Shane will move back to the offensive line and he could factor into the center battle from the first practice. Redshirt freshman Cory Fuavai is another player who was recruited for the spot and could play any one of the three interior positions, and fellow frosh Taylor Hindy was brought to Washington in part because of his long snapping abilities, so there's no reason to think he won't be at least given some plays to put down on film. Sophomore Siosifa Tufunga is a player that has patiently waited his turn and could find himself in the thick of the battle. Bellevue walk-on Michael Kneip is another player to look at. Word is he's impressed and should be a factor inside. And even though he won't be at Washington for spring, Dane Crane is an offensive linemen signed by the Huskies specifically to join the center battle this fall.

And then you have the X Factors, the guys that have been playing other positions but could be moved to center to help stabilize the position with some experience. Mike Criste would be first on the list because he backed Schaefer up all of 2011 before being moved to the right side in 2012. Though he won't be given the keys to the car right away, Erik Kohler is the one offensive lineman with two years' starting experience available for spring and he could get some opportunities snapping.

Regardless of how the center position battle comes out of spring, it will be far from complete. Crane will most certainly factor in somewhere, and Cozzetto wants to have five players he can go to at a moment's notice to snap - so he's got his work cut out for him in determining who can be counted on as UW's next OL quarterback.

Left Tackle Blues: Micah Hatchie and his 13 starts constitutes the most experienced returner from Washington's Vegas Bowl offensive line, so as UW's returning left tackle you would be led to believe this would be a source of comfort to UW fans. Not necessarily. Hatchie had his moments of brilliance, but they were far too scattered. Dexter Charles, who took over for Tanigawa after the LSU game and solidified the left guard spot for the rest of the year, was listed as UW's No. 2 left tackle on their official depth chart. You can also add two redshirt frosh in Jake Eldrenkamp and Nathan Dean as possible combatants in UW's LT Battle for Spring Football. With Keith Price's well-known struggle to stay healthy, it's become so important the battle for UW's left tackle position has attained the status of a proper name. It's Hatchie's job to lose but his play will be scrutinized and gone over with a fine-tooth comb to see if it has taken that needed jump in development. There's no reason to suggest he hasn't 'gotten it', but if he hasn't there are people behind him more than eager to show what they have.

Riva Makes Right: Cozzetto had hoped Ben Riva had developed to the point where he could start as a redshirt frosh in 2011, but instead UW used true freshman Kohler for all of 2011 at right tackle. And just when Riva looked ready to take the position over by force last year, he broke his arm in the San Diego State season opener. The 6-foot-6, 302-pound O'Dea graduate came back to start the final six games of the year. All indications this off-season are that Riva has turned it up another notch and has solidified the right tackle position for 2013.

Musical Chairs at Right Guard: As with Riva's injury throwing the right tackle spot into temporary upheaval, Erik Kohler's injury against LSU forced UW to scramble. In the end, there were four starters at both right guard and right tackle in 2012 between five players. While Riva's situation appears solid at right tackle with no one player seriously pushing him for playing time, right guard could be a real mess. Mike Criste started the last six games there, including the Vegas Bowl, but Kohler, Brostek and James Atoe all took starts there as well. It's one of the few good problems UW faces along the offensive line this spring, trying to figure out who takes the reins at right guard.

You Think Oregon Has A Lot of Uniform Combinations…!!: All these points lead to the idea that Washington's offensive line heads into spring football with a semblance of what their starting five should look like but it really won't all come together until the roles of Tanigawa and Kohler are clearly spelled out - and that won't be for a few months.

What that means is that you could see Micah Hatchie at left tackle, but Dexter Charles could be moved out there just as well. And if Charles moves out there, who would step in at left guard? That could be Tufunga or Brostek or Kohler (who has starts there) or Fuavai…and I just mentioned the traffic jam that is known as the center and right guard position battles.

Certainly heading into spring there's some definite knowns about Washington's offensive line, but it's the massive unknowns that are taking center stage. Can Hatchie keep his starting spot at left tackle? Will Riva scare off all comers at right tackle? Will Kohler be able to find his role on the OL in an abbreviated spring? What will Brostek's role be now that he's back where he began? Where will some of the other starters like Criste and Atoe end up? Will they end spring in the same spots they ended the 2012 season? Or will they end up working in totally different situations?

So many questions, so little time to find the answers - but that's what lies ahead for UW's OL starting Tuesday.

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