By Mason Kelley
Washington’s offensive linemen walked into a sushi bar. They packed the place. With the hungry Huskies seated in a semi-circle, they started to order. Then they ordered some more.
When this group gets together for a meal, “we’ll be there for a while,” senior center Mike Criste said. And, when it comes to eating sushi, the O-line can do some damage.
“We get at least six, seven plates each,” Criste said.
Throughout the summer, the line gathered for impromptu team meals. They hosted barbecues. They built bonfires. Sometimes they just placed an order for takeout.
Whatever they ended up doing, they rarely needed a plan. They have spent so much time together their interactions are spurred by embracing the moment. The ease of their relationship is what makes the bond special.
“We just spend a lot of time together,” senior tackle Ben Riva said.
When the Huskies opened fall camp last season, they had seven offensive linemen with starting experience. This year, all seven are back – Criste, Riva, Dexter Charles, Colin Tanigawa, Micah Hatchie, Shane Brostek and James Atoe.
With many of the linemen living together, the group embraces an open-door policy. There is a house shared by Dane Crane, Andrew Kirkland and Coleman Shelton, among others, and another that includes roommates Charles, Jake Eldrenkamp, Michael Kneip and Ross Dolbec.
Between practices, eating excursions and downtime at home, the Huskies’ offensive line is always together.
“On any team I would say the O-line is the closest,” Riva said. “We’re definitely very close, just with everything we’ve gone through injury-wise, and wins and losses. We’re very tight.”
Riva has some close friends who are military combat veterans. After listening to their stories about bonds built on the battlefield, he better understands how close connections are created.
“The bond they have with the guys they served with is unreal,” Riva said. “Their bond is forged through training, combat. We don’t have anything like that, but the principle is the same. We’re sweating together every day and we’re closer for it.”
For this group, age, position and status are inconsequential. They’re friends. They’re teammates. And, as long as the offensive line does its job, they will celebrate their successes, while fixing their flaws.
“We’re all the same group,” Criste said. “We’re O-linemen. It just feels so natural for us. There’s definitely a family feeling.”
Offensive line coach Chris Strausser inherited this group when he made the move from Boise State after Chris Petersen was hired in December. As he assessed the talent at the position, he felt he had a group of guys who fit his recruiting philosophy.
“I’m going to recruit guys I know fit into that room,” Strausser said. “That doesn’t mean everybody is the same guy. We want as much diversity in there as we can, but everyone in that room is going to get along with each other.”
But, while the offensive linemen fit Strausser’s philosophy, there has been an adjustment period as the new coach shares his system with veteran players.
This is a group that “wants to be good,” a collection of players who take pride in a job well done.”
“Those guys are so tight, they’re so used to something different,” he said. “For a whole group that’s really all in on a previous style, to adjust to something new, it’s a challenge. If we had less unity in the group, less experience, it would be easier for guys to totally buy into what I’m doing.”
This is a group that “wants to be good,” a collection of players who take pride in a job well done. Combine the experience, camaraderie and talent, and Strausser believes this is a group that can “put the team on their shoulders and run a little bit.”
At the end of an offensive series, the line gathers on the sideline. They talk about what went right and what needs to be fixed. They know each other so well, they understand what their teammates are saying before they have a chance to explain a full thought.
Riva wouldn’t go so far as to say they finish their teammates’ sentences, but “we’re all on the same page.” That is what happens when the daily interactions of a group are special because they’re effortless.