SEATTLE — Washington football coach Steve Sarkisian insists that even through the gloom of spring practice, when each day seemed to bring more bad news about the offensive line, he never fretted all that much.
“I don’t know if I ever felt that bad,” he said. “I think the perception was that I was supposed to.”
No doubt. In the spring, the Huskies rarely had enough healthy bodies to field two full offensive lines, at times playing without four projected starters for this season. One, guard Colin Porter, was lost for good to a career-ending shoulder injury.
But as the season approaches, the Huskies appear to have survived the storm. Other than Porter, every injured body has returned. And as Sarkisian noted often in the spring, the absence of some of the veterans allowed some younger players to get a lot of work in practice that could prove valuable down the road.
“As you look at us now up front, we’ve got a lot of guys, and good players, and we are having the opportunity to redshirt our true freshmen this year, for the most part,” Sarkisian said. “So I like where we are at now and what our future looks like at that position, as well.”
In the spring, Washington was also without returning starting guard Colin Tanigawa (recovering from an ACL injury) and often without returning starter Erik Kohler (rehabbing from minor ailments) and center Drew Schaefer (minor knee injury in the spring). Five linemen signed in February and arrived in time for camp this month.
Tanigawa, though, was given a clean bill of health, as were Kohler and Schaefer. Adding the freshmen to the mix, UW suddenly had 14 scholarship linemen and three walk-ons, all healthy and ready to go.
Camp started ominously, when returning starter Kohler suffered a dislocated kneecap on the first day. That scuttled thoughts of moving center Schaefer to left tackle. Kohler, though, returned this week, and the line is back at full strength.
The line has been surprisingly stable throughout camp, with the five starting spots rarely changing. That lineup consists of left tackle Micah Hatchie, left guard James Atoe, Schaefer at center, Tanigawa at right guard and Ben Riva at right tackle. Kohler figures to battle Atoe for the starting spot at guard, though he has also been getting snaps at center, which could allow Schaefer to move to tackle, if needed.
“I think our offensive line has had a nice training camp up to this point,” Sarkisian said. “Now (with) more healthy bodies, the expectations should become greater.”
Questions remain. Washington returns three starters in Schafer, Tanigawa and Kohler. But the two tackles are new, with Hatchie stepping in for departed left tackle Senio Kelemete, now with the Arizona Cardinals, and Riva replacing Kohler, who was moved to guard, where he says he feels more comfortable.
The inexperience at tackle was one reason coaches considered trying Schaefer, who is UW’s most experienced lineman and started six games at tackle earlier in his career, at tackle.
But Hatchie and Riva, an O’Dea graduate, have played increasingly well in camp.
Neither has started or played much. Riva’s game duty last year was reserved almost solely for the field-goal team, and he said this week that the thought of getting on the field at tackle has him “pumped.”
“I can’t even really explain it,” he said. “I’ve watched the Huskies growing up, and it means a lot to me.”
Riva is now listed at 6 feet 6, 305 pounds, and Sarkisian marvels at his physical transformation since arriving at UW in 2010.
“He looks like a Pac-12 offensive lineman,” Sarkisian said. “You see Ben Riva walking around the field, you go, ‘That’s what they are supposed to look like.’ “
Kohler, who was rushed into starting duty as a true freshman in 2010, agrees.
“I think this will be one of the better lines that we’ve have had the past couple years,” he said.
Kohler’s quick return may be another good omen for the Huskies. When he was injured on the first day of camp, it looked like a serious injury. But his kneecap had merely popped out — momentarily painful but relatively easy to fix.
“The trainer just came over, popped it in, straightened my leg out and put some ice on it,” Kohler said. “It didn’t really scare me. It was just a speed bump.”
The real tests, of course, come quickly for the line in the form of Louisiana Sate, Stanford, Oregon and USC — all in the first six weeks.
But Riva says the nervous days of the spring seem far away now.
“I feel a lot better now than where we were in the spring, definitely,” he said. “We still have some things we have to do, but we are coming together, and I think we should be pretty good.”