For all the holes the Huskies’ offensive line created for All-American running back Bishop Sankey last season — there were many, and they were big — there was still one big hole in the line’s development: pass protection.
The Huskies gave up 30 sacks in 13 games last season and 102 combined over the past three years.
“Too many,” UW’s new offensive line coach, Chris Strausser, said. “And from what I see right now (in fall camp), there’s too many.”
Strausser’s solution: Get bigger.
Although the Huskies return all five starters on the offensive line, there could be two sizable changes when UW opens the season at Hawaii on Aug. 30. Senior Colin Tanigawa, a two-year starter at guard, has been working exclusively at center this month, and Strausser said the 6-foot-3, 292-pound Tanigawa has been the most consistent of any linemen in fall camp.
Senior Mike Criste, the starting center last year, has splitting snaps with Tanigawa with the first-string offense, and Strausser said the competition for that job is ongoing.
Tanigawa, known as “Panda” to his teammates and coaches, has only played guard in his UW career, and the naturally quiet senior has he has adjusted well to taking on the demands of being more vocal as a center.
“It’s pretty different,” Tanigawa said. “You’re making the calls right off the bat for everyone and they’re listening to you. The techniques are different, you’ve got different things to focus on with snapping the ball and the little nuances that come with it.”
Veteran left guard Dexter Charles, who missed spring ball while recovering from shoulder surgery, has gained 22 pounds since last season, up to 311 pounds.
At right guard, senior James Atoe has been anchored with the No. 1 offense all camp. Strausser has said he likes the guards to have some heft, and the 6-foot-7, 381-pound Atoe certainly fits the bill.
“He’s a frickin’ huge guy,” Tanigawa said. “I like playing next to him, definitely. A guy like that, you like having on your side.”
Atoe, then listed at 349 pounds, started at right guard in UW’s victory over BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
“He’s moving his feet and he’s moving well,” Strausser said of Atoe, “so I haven’t thought one time about his weight. It hasn’t been an issue.”
Sacks, however, have been an issue for the Huskies.
In comparison, Strausser’s lines at Boise State ranked among the top-10 in the nation in fewest sacks allowed from 2010-12 — giving up just 26 total in those three seasons. (Last season, Boise State allowed 26 sacks, the most ever during the Chris Petersen era there; perhaps not coincidentally, the Broncos finished with their worst record of the Petersen era, at 8-5.)
“It’s a combination of things,” Strausser said. “Certainly, the quarterback’s involved and we had a guy at Boise (Kellen Moore) who was unbelievable at seeing stuff and getting rid of the ball. So there’s no question that helped us. Now, that said, I still think our guys were really, really good protection-wise. They took a lot of pride. So we had that first year where we gave up less than 10 sacks, and all of a sudden that lit a fire under those guys that, ‘Hey, if we can lead the country in fewest sacks allowed, that’s eliminating a lot of negative plays.’ …
“Those are big, big game-changing plays where, all of a sudden you go from first-and-10 to second-and-17 — and there’s no good play on second-and-17. So we’ve got a ways to go there (with the UW line).”
Strausser, much like Petersen, is a stickler for details. His emphasis on pad level, on footwork, on hand placement, on knee bend and on hip movement are apparent, senior left tackle Micah Hatchie said.
“We can notice it, especially when we got in and watch the film. We can see the difference in the pad level from what it was before to what it was now,” Hatchie said.
The Huskies seem settled at the tackle spots with Hatchie on the left and senior Ben Riva on the right. Unlike season past — when many of these veterans were forced into action as freshmen or redshirt freshman as Steve Sarkisian and his staff built up the program’s talent level — there’s quality depth behind the first line. Jake Eldrenkamp, Siosifa Tufunga, Shane Brostek and Coleman Shelton are all pushing for playing time, too.
“For the five seniors, we all came in with Sark and we had to battle through the injuries and the substitutions,” Hatchie said. “Now that we have a solid line, with solid backups, too, we feel pretty confident.”
And that should make the quarterbacks feel a little better, too.