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Washington trying to recapture old formula that produced quality offensive lines

For all the mystery over who might be the alpha dog at the University of Washington this season, there’s a much larger question.

Fifteen hundred pounds worth.

Finding the right five guys to prop up in front of quarterbacks Jeff Lindquist or K.J. Carta-Samuels or, especially, prized freshman Jake Browning, in fact, will factor into which passer coach Chris Petersen decides is right for the job. It could also decide whether the Huskies tread water in this season of transition or play Pac-12 bottom feeder.

UW’s offensive line is among the least experienced in school history, with just 14 career starts among a dozen or so candidates.

“It’s not going to be one of those years when you know going in who the top five guys are,” said offensive line coach Chris Strausser, “and we may not know for a month.”

There are capable players on board. But as history reveals, capable has become a relative term in the context of the Huskies O-line.

The Huskies have pulled themselves out of the competitive disaster that was the mid-2000s, but they’ve still finished in the Top 25 just once since 2001. And nothing quite illustrates the program’s tumble quite like a few offensive line facts. Consider:

• In the last 15 seasons, the Huskies have just three first-team all-conference offensive linemen – none since 2001. The previous 15 seasons (1985-99) saw nine players so honored, three of them twice.

• Fourteen Huskies were selected in the NFL Draft in the 1990s, 11 if later rounds since lopped off aren’t included. Since then? Five, and just one since 2006.

• Only four UW linemen since 2000 have appeared in an NFL game, and 116 of the 120 starts belong to one man, Khalif Barnes. In the previous 15 seasons, ex-Huskies at the position played in more than 1,500 NFL games, made 1,061 starts and accounted for nine Pro Bowl appearances.

The other record is more familiar: UW was 118-56 from 1985-99, and is 87-99 since.

If it all starts with the big guys up front, it’s understandable why the Huskies’ return to prominence has had so much trouble getting started.

Former UW head coach – and, previous to that, line coach – Keith Gilbertson pinpointed the line of demarcation.

“Too much changeover,” said Gilbertson, who now lives in Hayden, Idaho, and is part of UW’s pregame radio team. “When you got away from the Dan James and Jim Lambright message and the way you recruited, it’s never been quite the same.

“With coach James, if there was a scholarship left over or being unused, it was always, ‘Is there an offensive lineman out there somebody’s overlooked?’ It was a great environment for big guys there.”

Gilbertson thinks that Strausser, who arrived last year with Petersen after extended service at Boise State, is making strides in restoring that environment – and there are some intriguing pieces.

One is junior Shane Brostek. He’s a link back to the hothouse days of developing linemen at UW – father Bern was an All-Pac-10 player in 1989 and an eight-year pro. But he’s also part of the more recent legacy of fitful line development, having been thrown into a starting role as a freshman in 2012, slipping back in 2013 and finally redshirting last year.

“He probably wasn’t ready and has been playing catch up,” Strausser said. “There’s just so much to be gained by redshirting that first year.”

Coeur d’Alene’s Matt James did, and now he’s battling with another redshirt freshman, Kaleb McGary, at right tackle. But there are exceptions: massive Trey Adams of Wenatchee is the most talked about lineman in camp, and could see action just months removed from his prom.

It’s a college football truism that the offensive line is the toughest position to recruit – generally, because it’s all about projection and how a player’s attributes translate from what may be a completely foreign high school system. Gilbertson, however, isn’t convinced.

“To me, a top quarterback is the hardest to nail down,” he said. “With offensive lineman, the problem is finding enough of them. You have to create depth, and if you sign just two or three a year, that’s going to catch up with you.”

He knows. Before his predecessor, Rick Neuheisel, was fired in June 2003, he signed just three offensive linemen in that year’s class – and only two of the four signed in 2002 panned out. Those soon became significant shortcomings.

There are coaching and development issues, too. Gilbertson noted that, “Everybody throws now and kids can pass block, but the ability to create a low pad level and come up through a defender and finish a block is a little bit of a lost art.”

With a line as young as the 2015 Huskies, just making sure they know which way to turn is a challenge. Strausser knows having a quarterback just as inexperienced magnifies the pressure.

“That’s very true, but at the end of the day our guys aren’t thinking that way,” he said. “It’s just so much about doing their job. That there’s a freshman standing behind them, they might not even know.”


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