SEATTLE – During the fall of change that was the 2010 University of Washington football season, no unit went through more turnover than the Huskies’ offensive line.
And so it came as no surprise that UW opened its first week of game preparation with seven different players shuffling through the first unit.
But that was only for one day, and by the weekend the Huskies had settled into a five-man front that should – finally – give the unit some stability heading into the Dec. 30 Holiday Bowl.
“We’re kind of locked in,” offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto, a Gonzaga Prep and University of Idaho alumnus, said Saturday afternoon, using a phrase that hasn’t described his unit in months.
Since the last time UW faced Nebraska in late September, the Huskies have used six different combinations along their offensive line in a span of nine games. Another lineup, with Senio Kelemete, Ryan Tolar, Drew Schaefer, Colin Porter and Cody Habben working together for the first time, has been practicing over the past few days as UW prepares for the rematch with the Cornhuskers.
The big question now is whether UW has found the right mix at last.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time together, and we’ve been coming together as a unit,” said Porter, a true freshman who has settled in as the starting right guard. “To come together and synchronize, you’ve really got to come together as a family. We’ve been doing that.”
The Huskies have used the same eight linemen all season. The current five have mixed and matched along with senior Gregory Christine and freshman Erik Kohler, while redshirt sophomore Daniel Kanczugowski has been used as an extra lineman in short-yardage situations.
Kohler has started at three different positions on the line but appears to be the odd man out in the current lineup. But as Cozzetto said over the weekend, “Kohler is continuing to challenge people; I’m not afraid to play him anywhere.”
Kohler made his first career start in the first Nebraska game and held his own while facing defensive tackle Jared Crick, a second-team All-American this season. He came down with mononucleosis shortly thereafter, and the O-line shuffle began.
Kohler was one of seven linemen to start at least five games this season, with Kelemete being the lone member of the unit to open all 12 games at the same position (left tackle).
Through it all, the Huskies have had plenty of time to evaluate their linemen, get healthy and put together what they believe is the best starting five for the upcoming bowl game.
Cozzetto said his unit has made big strides since the last Nebraska game, a 56-21 victory for the Cornhuskers on Sept. 18 in Seattle.
“It’s more cohesive,” Cozzetto said. “They know each other more. Even Kohler played in the first game in the fall, and he’s a much more confident player. Porter’s much more confident; he’s getting better all the time.”
The true freshmen have really come into their own this season, despite some obvious bumps along the way. Their first start alongside each other, in an Oct. 30 game against nationally-ranked Stanford, didn’t go so well as the freshman starters got yanked early in the first half in favor of seasoned seniors Christine and Habben.
“That was the first time that I got demoted from a position my whole life,” Porter said last week. “It humbled me a little bit, and I was able to come back and compete.
“I’ve worked harder than I ever had, and I’ve come back. It was a good thing.”
On the verge of making his third consecutive start at right guard, and his first against Nebraska, Porter is eager to see how the new-look line holds up in a rematch with the Cornhuskers.
And he’s not the only one.
“They have come together, (and) they are working better together,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said over the weekend. “We are much more physical than we were the first time (against Nebraska), and I think there is a lot more accountability among each other. It’s not just coming from (the coaches); it’s among each other.’’
Sophomore wide receiver James Johnson is as eager to go down to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl, seeing as how he attended high school nearby. But the one-time San Diego athlete-of-the-year is making his return under tough circumstances after dropping on the depth chart following a preseason ankle injury. “Of course it is frustrating but that’s no one’s fault but my own,” said Johnson, who played in six games this season but caught just one pass after putting up 39 receptions as a true freshman last year. … On a rare sunny winter day, the Huskies moved practice outside Sunday for the first time since the end of the regular season.