Ryan Tolar and Senio Kelemete (Dawgman.com)
SEATTLE - Seventy-five starts sounds about right, according to Ivan Maisel. Maisel, the distinguished college football writer who has worked for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Dallas Morning News and The Sporting News, came up with a metric for gauging overall success for a college football program. In fact, he called it the 'King of Hidden Stats'. What is it?
By his measure, teams that had an offensive line returning with 75 combined starts or more stood a much greater chance of success. He did his research in 2008, determining that one of the reasons Oklahoma was considered a top-5 team nationally was because of the 122 starts among its offensive linemen.
At the start of 2009, the starting five of Washington's offensive line had a combined 66 starts and 88 total appearances, but those numbers were definitely deceiving. Nearly half of them were given to senior Ben Ossai, who eventually was Wally Pipped the last four games of the season by Drew Schaefer after being benched for his start against UCLA due to being late to meeting.
The fact that he wasn't able to win his starting spot back from the 6-foot-5, 287-pound Schaefer has proved telling for the redshirt sophomore from Eastlake, who is now giving center a shot this spring. He hadn't played the position since his sophomore year in high school, but got a taste last year when injuries forced the coaching staff to try players at different spots. "I think that was kind of a glimpse as to what I could do," Schaefer said of last year. "It's another step toward helping me get on the field."
"Coach always wants us to be position-flexible," he added. "If someone gets hurt we can move from tackle to center or vise-versa. I really like it. It's been fun. I still have some learning experiences to do and I just have to get comfortable with it. But the coaches are real helpful in telling me what they want and I really like it."
"Drew's demeanor in the middle, I really like," added UW Offensive Line Coach Dan Cozzetto. "He's calm. He's getting used to making decisions in situations that are tough, whether run or pass - and I like the way he handles it."
Washington had 10 returning linemen with game experience from last year - Schaefer, Ryan Tolar, Cody Habben, Senio Kelemete, Greg Christine, Nick Wood, Mykenna Ikehara, Skyler Fancher, Mark Armelin and Daniel Kanczugowski, a walk-on from O'Dea High School in Seattle.
"Last season who knew who was going to start," Cozzetto said. "It was like a baseball lineup - who's pitching? They were put in situations where they had to play right away."
Armelin and Kanczugowski both saw action in UW's 30-0 win over Washington State. And six of the players (Schaefer, Tolar, Habben, Kelemete, Christine and Ikehara) have either played multiple positions along the line already, or are learning multiple positions this spring.
So instead of Schaefer at left tackle, he's started the spring at center. Kelemete, who was a stalwart at right guard, has been moved outside to left tackle. Tolar, who was a freshman All-American at left guard before being moved to center last year, is back at his original spot. Ikehara, who got his only 2009 start at center, has moved one position to the right. Skyler Fancher has taken the place of Habben at right tackle while Habben rehabs a shoulder injury.
So for instance, the Huskies will bring back four players who have, or will have worked, at center by the time spring football is done (Schaefer, Tolar, Christine and Ikehara). "Me getting comfortable there is just another weapon for our offense," Schaefer said. "If I go down, someone else can step in, or the other way around."
That type of versatility excites UW Head Coach Steve Sarkisian. "To get Nick Wood and Greg Christine, (Ryan) Tolar and Mykenna (Ikehara), all those guys reps….Drew Schaefer getting those reps…those are invaluable for us," Sarkisian said. "They are invaluable now and they'll be invaluable in the fall when our new guys come in and we're able to roll them in and guys are comfortable playing."
"This type of spring, we only have 10 guys," added Cozzetto. "Being able to move guys around, it forces them to learn the game a lot better."
This staff has shown no hesitation to try linemen at new spots. The move of Kelemete to left tackle should not come as a surprise to anyone that has followed Cozzetto's career. In fact, he's made a living out of turning interior players into edge defenders.
"I've done it all my life," he said. "When you expose them to that edge on the outside, especially on the left side, it's a whole different life out there." He made that switch with Todd Steussie at Cal, who eventually played 16 years in NFL, including one Super Bowl appearance, and both Levi Jones and Marvel Smith at Arizona State. Jones and Smith have combined to play 18 years in the NFL, and Smith won two rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"The biggest issue was trying to find a left tackle and trying to utilize the people I had - especially Senio, because he's such a great athlete," Cozzetto said. "The deal with him is just trying to grow into that body of his. He's right around 288, 290 (pounds). And that's the kind of type of guy I'm looking for there."
"It brings some athleticism to that position for us," added Sarkisian of Kelemete's move. "It brings a nastiness. He was a defensive lineman a year and a half ago. He brings a real leadership quality. We love having him over there. To think of what he's accomplished, it's very encouraging. By no means was he perfect, but he showed signs of consistency and physicality. For him and his body type, that left tackle spot is a lot more fitting than being inside when there's a 3-technique or nose guard on him. He can get out on the edge and block against athletic guys."
Athleticism is a key word for this year's line group. They worked on getting more athletic during the winter, and they are hoping that hard work pays off for them in the fall. "Coach (Cozzetto) emphasized just getting more athletic overall," Schaefer said. "Flexibility was a big thing. He wanted us to become big athletes, big athletes who could run. That was our goal."
The familiarity with each other, as well as with the coaches and the systems in place, have put this year's group of offensive linemen on a whole different level from where they were at this same time last year. "It's day and night," Schaefer said of the difference. "We've grown as a group. We did a lot of bonding in the off-season. We lifted together every day. Coming into the spring, I think we all click a lot better."
That comfort zone has created a level of communication already producing results on the field. "The communication was really good," Sarkisian said after UW's first practice last week. "I don't think we were turning guys loose in the backfield. And that was the biggest difference from last year. This year, it felt like we were in sync, the communication was good up front. And that's what you get when you have veteran guys."
They aren't quite up to the Maisel standard yet - but they are darn close. If you take the numbers of this spring's starting five - Senio Kelemete (11/12), Ryan Tolar (30/36), Drew Schaefer (4/12), Mykenna Ikehara (1/5) and Skyler Fancher (1/10), you come up with 47 starts and 75 total games played. But if you include the 27 starts and 37 games played of Cody Habben at right tackle - as you would expect to pencil him in for the fall, and which also gives the Huskies an offensive line similar to the ones they played with against Washington State and California last year - and that bumps the offensive line totals to 73 starts and 102 total games played.
That's Maisel Territory.