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Dawgs' O-Line Is A Close-Knit Group
Release: 10/14/2010
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Oct. 14, 2010

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by Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

SEATTLE - Ryan Tolar has gained a sense of camaraderie and duty - so much so, he wants to become an officer in the Marines and go to war.

Gregory Christine has gained friends for life.

Cody Habben has pride in his Husky teammates and all they've endured in the senior's four, tumultuous seasons.

Senio Kelemete has a trusted support group for any problem, and not just football ones.

Drew Schaefer has a coach's persona on the field, even though he's only a sophomore.

And Erik Kohler has - make that, had - a mullet that would have made Duran Duran or MacGyver proud. Thirty years ago.

"We loved it," Habben and Christine said in unison of the hockey-like hairdo, cutting off the suggestion that the huge freshman was a huge target of upperclass hazing at the start of preseason practice. "He just didn't like it."

All this and more is inside the closely knit "family" that is Washington's offensive line, the palace guard for the most valuable asset in the program, quarterback Jake Locker.

"We are so close. We are a family," Christine said.

The senior guard from Camarillo, Calif., went from a walk-on under former coach Tyrone Willingham to a starter for Steve Sarkisian in six games last season, and in the first two games this season.

The affable, smiling 288-pounder turned to Habben -- like he has so many times before in the last four years.

"I know his parents. They know mine. And it's always going to be that way," Christine said. "I see me telling my kids later on in life, `Oh, there's your Uncle Cody.'"

They get together for breakfasts around the University District at 7 a.m.

They lift together, sometimes before dawn. They seek each other's advice and support -- and not just about football.

"I don't care where it is, or who it is. We are always there to help each other," said Kelemete, the junior left tackle.

This family has been strengthened through adversity: the pains of an 0-12 season in 2008, then the tumult of a coaching change and a new staff that demanded more intensity, a faster pace and more attention to detail. They have endured position changes, injuries, departures - you name it.

"They all came from somewhere. Now we are bringing them together," said Dan Cozzetto, a no-nonsense, 29-year veteran coach who is in his second year running Washington's offensive line.

"It's a lot of fun when you finally start to see them come together, mold and take care of things themselves, when they can coach one another on this is how we do it."

So they've arrived at that point?

"We're getting closer," said Cozzetto, a protégé of former UW line coach, offensive coordinator and head coach Keith Gilbertson.

Sarkisian said on the first day of preseason camp this summer that his deep offensive line was a strength. That belief seemed to be validated two weeks ago at USC when the line plowed rushing lanes and protected Locker as the offense rolled to 537 total yards.

The closeness and quirkiness of the O-line came through during the crux of that game. Just 3 seconds remained as the Huskies broke the huddle for Erik Folk's 32-yard field-goal attempt to win it. Washington was down 31-29 in the wild, tense game, and 82,000 fans were going bonkers over the drama.

And there was sophomore Daniel Kanczugowski, the O-line's resident crackup, giving Kelemete a goofy look as he took his position next to him on the field-goal protection. With his eyes playfully bugging out, Kanczugowski, a former walk-on, joked , "Hey, let's not get this blocked, OK?"

Kelemete cracked up. And the Trojans never got close to Folk as his kick soared through the uprights for the Huskies' first road win in three years. Sarkisian, another jokester, would have appreciated the humor.

He definitely appreciates the line's flexibility.

It is one of the many demands from the exacting Cozzetto, who's been with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, at Arizona State, Idaho, Oregon State and California. "It forces them to learn the game - the whole game," Cozzetto said. "You've got to be like that. I mean, being in the NFL and ... from back in the `80s when I became an offensive line coach, you've got to be able to play more than one position."

These Huskies have embraced that message.

Tolar started 11 games at center last season, now he's at guard. Kelemete was the starting right guard last year, and was a defensive tackle until the spring of 2009. Schaefer started the last four games of 2009 at left tackle as a freshman. He's the center now.

The future left tackle appears to be Kohler, a true freshman heavily recruited out of Oaks Christian High School in Southern California. He became the starting left guard late last month.

Kohler is 6-foot-5 and 306 pounds. Yet he is athletic, drawing raves from Sarkisian for how quickly he gets out and pulls on cross blocks down the line.

Kohler is on track to be a four-year starter, and will likely move back out to left tackle after Kelemete graduates following next season, if not before.

"He's going to be a great football player," Cozzetto said. "I really believe he'll be dominant."

Christine began the season as the starting right guard. He can also play center.

Habben is the relatively stable one at right tackle, though even he was moving to guard and back throughout the win at USC.

The senior from Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., even caught his first career pass on a deflection at the start of the Huskies' final, winning drive against the Trojans. He's still miffed that the official statistics have him for a loss of a yard on the catch.

"I got back to the line (for no gain)," Habben said, laughing.

"No, you didn't," Christine said.

NFLdraftscout.com and CBS Sports list Habben, at 6-6 and 290 pounds, as a potential late-round NFL draft choice next spring. Tolar, 6-5, 296, is seen as more of a long shot by NFL scouts.

If the NFL doesn't call, Tolar, who is scheduled to graduate in December with a degree in American Indian studies, has the most challenging of fallback plans.

"I've thought about going into the Marines, OCS," Tolar says, meaning officer candidate school for enlisted men. "I see a lot of good things in serving my country."

He wants to be a helicopter pilot, though he has a cousin who jokes Tolar would only be able to fit inside a mammoth C- 130 transport plane. The cousin is stationed with the Navy at Camp Pendleton outside San Diego and did three combat tours of duty in Iraq.

"It's definitely something I want to look into," Tolar said of the Marines.

Reminded he'd essentially be signing up for war in Afghanistan, he shrugged and said, "If I wasn't playing football, probably what I'd be doing is now fighting in the war."

This Huskies family hasn't always gotten along. Tolar said he didn't even want to look at Habben when both arrived at Washington and redshirted their freshman seasons along with Locker in 2006.

"In high school I couldn't stand him," Tolar, who played for Pasco High School, said of Habben. "His high school team beat us in the state playoffs, knocked us out two times in a row."

Then came 2008, the season that tested the blockers' -and every other Husky's - resolve.

"We all came here to win, and definitely that year was tough on all of us," Tolar said. "After 0-12, we looked at each other and said, `We have to change.' Then the coaching staff came in and brought a ton of energy. And we just fed off that."

Kelemete says "the only reason I would even bring up that season is to remind ourselves where we have come from. We have come back from a lot."

Tolar, Habben, Christine and Locker have been close since about freshman orientation. In the first half of their college careers, Tolar, Habben and Locker shared a house on the shore of Lake Washington with former Husky receiver Tony Chidiac and others.

"You couldn't ask for a better house for some college guys," Tolar said, still sounding wistful over the bachelor pad. "I mean, 10 feet out of the place was a dock. It was the ultimate find of a house, the deal of the century.

"We had to pile eight guys into it to afford it, though."

Christine says after home games, he and Habben help pack up their families' tailgates. Then they all head over to the Locker family shin-dig, where "Jake's dad shoves burgers down our throats," Christine says appreciatively.

Habben and Locker have since moved into a house in Lake City, north of campus. Though they all don't live together, the Huskies' offensive linemen vow that after all they've been through at UW, they will stay together.

As Habben said, "We'll be Huskies forever."

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