SEATTLE – On this, we can all agree: If the No. 4 Washington Huskies are to have any real shot of knocking off No. 1 Alabama in their national semifinal on New Year’s Eve, they have to give sophomore quarterback Jake Browning some time to throw from the pocket.
To do that, Washington’s offensive line will have to consistently block the best defensive front in college football. Not so long ago, the notion of UW’s line being able to do that was, well, it was a yard shy of preposterous.
It’s not so far-fetched now. The Huskies are bigger, they’re meaner and they’re more confident up front, and they’re ready to find out what that means against the defending national champions in Atlanta.
“Someone has to knock them off,” UW’s Kaleb McGary said. “Why not us?”
The Huskies’ had the youngest offense in school history last year, which featured the school’s first true-freshman starter at left tackle in Trey Adams. McGary, as a redshirt freshman, was a part-time starter at right tackle in 2015, a season marked by injury and inconsistency for him and the line in general.
When Chris Petersen and his staff arrived at UW three years ago, they identified the offensive and defensive lines as the program’s most-pressing areas they needed to address. The goal: more talent, more teaching.
With the signing of two in-state linemen – McGary and Adams – in their first two recruiting classes, UW coaches began to address the talent side of things. Then coming into this season, offensive line coach Chris Strausser challenged his guys to be tougher, to be better.
“Strauss at the beginning of the year told us, ‘Let’s take over this team. Let’s be the heart and soul of this team,’ ” Adams said. “And I think if the O-line is the heart and soul of a team, good things will happen. Because everything happens up there.”
En route to their first Pac-12 Conference championship since 2000, the Huskies are leading the conference in scoring (44.5) and, according to one statistical measurement, rank as the most efficient offense in the FBS.
“To be a successful team, I think the O-line has to take over,” McGary said. “I think beforehand we hadn’t really thought about it – like hadn’t really consciously thought about, ‘OK, this is what we want to do.’ Obviously, we wanted to be a dominant group, but the real idea of taking over and leading the offense I don’t think was really a forethought that we had until we were challenged to do so.”
One of the major goals for the offense, Strausser said, was to cut down on sacks – and the Huskies did that, allowing one fewer sack per game (from 2.62 per game last season to 1.62 this season). Alabama ranks third nationally with 3.46 sacks per game.
Teammates point to junior Coleman Shelton, in his first year as the starting center, as one of the vocal leaders on the offense, and Strausser said he’s especially pleased for Eldrenkamp, the Bellevue High School product who was also named to the all-Pac-12 first-team and was the Pac-12’s scholar-athlete of the year.
“To see a guy like (Eldrenkamp) who a lot of people have said throughout the years, ‘You know, he’s good but we’re not sure how good he could be.’ He proved people wrong. He proved me wrong,” Strausser said. “I challenged him when I first got here, ‘Hey, I know you’ve got talent, but let’s see what you can do on the football field.’ And he’s done that this year.”
Adams joined Eldrenkamp on the all-Pac-12 first team, and getting two on that team was an impressive feat for a program that hadn’t had a single offensive lineman on the first team since 2001.
Strausser has also relied more and more on true freshman Nick Harris at right guard – with senior Shane Brostek and junior Andrew Kirkland in the rotation there – and will have four of five regular starters back in 2017. Not that the Huskies are looking that far ahead.
“This year has been so incredible,” McGary said. But, he added, “I’m not incredibly surprised, just because of the work we put in during the offseason and how hard the guys next to me fight, how hard we all work. But it’s been a helluva ride.”
And it will be a helluva challenge against Alabama’s defense
Just how difficult? Strausser was asked Tuesday to name the greatest team he’s coached against.
“I was at Oregon State as a graduate assistant when we played the 1991 Washington team,” he said, “and that was the best team I’ve ever seen on a football field. The fastest team, for sure, I’ve ever seen. They just had no weaknesses anywhere.”
And how does this Alabama team compare to the Huskies’ 1991 national champs?
“Similar,” he said. “There’s just no weaknesses all the way across the board.”
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