It’s not as if the Washington Huskies didn’t have questions about their offensive line coming into spring camp.
• Can Micah Hatchie fill the left-tackle spot with the graduation of Senio Kelemete?
• How much would limited offseason conditioning affect Erik Kohler?
• Is there a player who can fill in for Colin Tanigawa if his surgically repaired knee isn’t ready by the Sept. 1 season opener against San Diego State?
But seven practices into spring camp, there are no certain answers. Even worse, more questions have arisen about the unit that must protect quarterback Keith Price.
• How does offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto replace two-year starting guard Colin Porter, who was forced to quit football because of shoulder problems?
• Is Mike Criste capable of playing should something happen to center Drew Schaefer?
• Where does Kohler fit into the lineup when he does return to full strength?
Thankfully for the Huskies, those questions don’t need to be answered now. There are still eight practices in the spring and all of fall camp to find those answers.
Still, it wasn’t supposed to be like this for Cozzetto and coach Steve Sarkisian. They had planned to replace only the graduated Kelemete and begin 2012 with four returning starters who played every game last season.
But with Tanigawa’s injury in the second-to-last regular-season game and Porter’s sudden retirement, that group has taken a serious hit. Cozzetto got another scare when Schaefer suffered a knee injury Wednesday, which turned out to be minor.
With Tanigawa and Schaefer out, UW suited up just 10 offensive linemen for the past two practices. Of those 10, only Kohler and Hatchie played on offense last season.
“Is it ideal? No,” Sarkisian said.
But both Sarkisian and Cozzetto are trying to find positives in the predicament. It certainly allows them the chance to evaluate their young offensive linemen.
The first team offensive line Friday was Hatchie at left tackle, redshirt freshman Dexter Charles at left guard, sophomore Criste at center, sophomore James Atoe at right guard and redshirt freshman Ben Riva at right tackle.
“This is invaluable reps they are getting,” Sarkisian said. “The reps were good. Are we perfect? No. We’re not there yet. But we’ll take these reps. And would I love to have Tanigawa and Schaefer and Erik Kohler 100 percent? Yeah. There are things there that could be better but we will really benefit from this time with the young linemen getting these reps, it’s going to help us in the fall.’’
What hurts Washington is its lack of depth on the offensive line. Sarkisian’s first recruiting class in 2009 was understandably diminished because of the head coaching transition. His lone offensive line recruit – Daniel Mafoe, a junior college linemen – failed to gain admission to school.
The 2010 class had seven offensive linemen and featured Kohler and Porter as the prize recruits. But the 2011 class had only two offensive linemen – Charles and Siosifa Tufunga – after committed recruits Paulay Asiata and Stephane Nembot changed their minds and signed with Colorado.
“You look at our numbers, and we are going to have five scholarship guys coming in and our numbers are starting to get right,” Cozzetto said. “We are probably a recruiting class to where you all of the sudden have those classes in place. You are going to have guys that will redshirt and develop in that year instead of having to play guys right away. From the start when we got here, the numbers were way down. And it takes a while to get those numbers back.”
Of that group of five signees, recruiting analysts think only Shane Brostek is physically capable of stepping in and contributing now.
So Cozzetto is doing his best with what’s available.
“They are going to play a lot of positions and I’m going to treat it much like it was when I was in the NFL and you get seven guys or eight guys if you are lucky and all those guys have to learn how to snap a football and how to be position flexible,” Cozzetto said.
The players have embraced the situation, knowing it’s an opportunity to earn a spot.
“My goal was solidify a spot for the fall,” Charles said. “That’s what spring ball is all about, for everyone to earn a spot.”
Kohler said he’s finally starting to feel 100 percent healthy after a frustrating offseason.
“I’m coming back strong,” he said. “I feel better.”
Cozzetto is optimistic for the fall. He said he thinks that Tanigawa will be recovered from knee surgery and that Kohler and Schaefer will also be healthy, giving him three experienced starters to go with Hatchie and whomever he decides to be the fifth linemen. And the spring experience for players such as Charles, Atoe, Riva and Criste will only make the unit that much better.
“I’m confident these guys are working hard,” Cozzetto said. “They are kind of the guys I like. They can run. They are athletic. They are strong. I’m really looking forward to seeing how they mature this spring and get ready to play.”
SARKISIAN’S OFFENSIVE LINE RECRUITS
A look at the offensive linemen recruited by Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, with the number of stars they received as recruits from rivals.com with position, name, school/hometown, height/weight, stars and recruiting class year:
Tackle, Daniel Mafoe, El Camino JC/Torrance, Calif., 6-4/320, 3 stars, 2009
The skinny: One of three junior college transfers in the class who weren’t admitted to UW.
Tackle, Micah Hatchie, Waialua High/Waialua, Hawaii, 6-5/285, 4 stars, 2010
The skinny: Had playing time at right tackle in four games in 2011, projected starter at left tackle.
Tackle, Ben Riva,O'Dea/Seattle, 6-6/305, 3 stars, 2010
The skinny: Has played only on special teams, but is vying for starting right tackle spot this season.
Tackle, Michael Criste, Mission Viejo/Mission Viejo, Calif., 6-5/282, 2 stars, 2010
The skinny: Saw no game action in 2011 while backing up center Drew Schaefer, a Willingham recruit.
Tackle, James Atoe, The Dalles/The Dalles, Ore., 6-6/332, 2 stars, 2010
The skinny: Played in three games on special teams in 2011; now working at left guard and right tackle.
Guard, Erik Kohler, Oaks Christian/Westlake Village, Calif., 6-5/296, 4 stars, 2010
The skinny: Started every game at right tackle in 2011, but struggled. Likely starter at right guard.
Guard, Colin Porter, Bothell/Bothell, 6-4/299, 4 stars, 2010
The skinny: Started every game in 2011, but shoulder injuries forced him to give up football.
Guard, Colin Tanigawa, Loyola/Los Angeles, 6-3/280, 2 stars, 2010
The skinny: Started in 2011 before suffering knee injury; projected to be starting left guard if healthy.
Tackle, Dexter Charles, Stanwood/Stanwood, 6-4/287, 3 stars, 2011
The skinny: Redshirted last season and has worked this spring at right guard with first team.
Guard, Siosifa Tufunga, Jordan/Long Beach, Calif., 6-2/313, 3 stars, 2011
The skinny: Redshirted last season and has worked as second-team guard this spring.
Tackle, Nathan Dean, Juanita/Kirkland, 6-5/270, 3 stars, 2012
The skinny: The first offensive line recruit of 2012 class to commit.
Tackle, Taylor Hindy, Chaminade Prep/West Hills, Calif., 6-4/285, 2 stars, 2012
The skinny: Sarkisian labled him a “diamond in the rough,” also candidate for long-snapping duties.
Guard, Jake Eldrenkamp, Bellevue/Bellevue, 6-5/295, 3 stars, 2012
The skinny: Chose UW over Washington State after a late offer from the Huskies.
Guard, Shane Brostek, Hawaii Prep/Kamuela, Hawaii, 6-3/300, 3 stars, 2012
The skinny: Son of ex-Huskies center Bern Brostek, he might be the most ready of the class to play in ’12.
Center, Cory English, Auburn/Auburn, 6-4/285, 2 stars, 2012
The skinny: Offered a scholarship late by UW; Sarkisian likes his nasty streak as a player.