Aug. 23, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Erik Kohler felt his cleats lock into the turf midway through the first preseason practice this month. He looked down -- and saw a strange, harrowing sight.
His knee cap was on the outside of his right leg.
"It was interesting, more than anything. I would have to say it was a weird, weird sensation, just seeing your knee cap on the side of your leg," the Huskies' two-year starter on the offensive line said. "It was kind of scary, just because your knee cap is not supposed to be on the side."
Asked what the first thing hard-driving, irascible line coach Dan Cozzetto said to him while Kohler was on the ground with his knee cap askew, Kohler recalled hearing "Get up!"
Then he laughed Wednesday.
Of course he did.
For a guy that has unknowingly played two games with mononucleosis and come down with a staph infection already during his Huskies' career, what's a dislocated knee cap but another good story to tell?
Trainers "just popped the knee in, straightened my leg out and put some ice on it," Kohler recalls.
He and his Huskies can laugh now. After weeks of going into the training room up to five times a day for rehabilitation, Washington's most versatile lineman returned this week to full practicing. Kohler's return gives the Huskies the flexibility and depth it wants in front of quarterback Keith Price and a retooled running game for their opener Sept. 1 against San Diego State.
Coach Steve Sarkisian plans on playing seven or eight linemen each on the offensive and defensive fronts in a rotation that is likely to last beyond the first few games of the season. Kohler being back gives UW seven offensive linemen with substantial playing or practice time with the first-team offense since spring ball began: Kohler, returning starters Drew Schaefer at center and Colin Tanigawa at left guard, plus Ben Riva at right tackle, Micah Hatchie at left tackle, James Atoe at right guard and Dexter Charles at either guard spot.
That's a relative full house of offensive linemen compared to what the Huskies were left with during spring ball in April. That's when starting guard Colin Porter was forced to leave football because of a degenerative condition in his shoulders. Kohler was out with that staph infection plus other bangs leftover from 2011. Tanigawa was only three-plus months removed from reconstructive knee surgery. Schaefer, the line's lone senior, was the only returning starter able to get on the field in April - then he got hurt in spring practice.
Chicken Littles sprouted like spring flowers. They proclaimed that no matter how good the record-setting Price may be again slinging the ball, no matter what the potential may be for Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey to replace the departed production of Chris Polk at running back this fall, the sky was going to crash down on UW's offense with the line so inexperienced and in flux.
"I don't know if I ever felt that bad. The perception was, I was supposed to," Sarkisian said. "Spring ball is spring ball. Your numbers are always going to be lower, especially when you have some guys with offseason surgeries, then you have guy medically DQ'd, then Schaefer tweaks his knee there in the middle of spring ball.
"But if you look at our numbers now, there are a lot of guys -- and a lot of good players. We are having the opportunity to redshirt our true freshmen now, for the most part. I like where we are now, and for the future I am excited, as well."
This depth on the O-line is another example of the evolution entering the fourth year of Sarkisian's program at Washington.
Kohler is Exhibit A in that evolution.
When the 6-foot-4, 299-pound Kohler arrived at UW three years ago with since-transferred quarterback Nick Montana from Oaks Christian High School in Southern California, Huskies coaches thought they may have their left tackle of the future. But the line's depth was so shallow when Sarkisian and his staff took over in 2009 they felt they had to play Kohler as a true freshman rather than redshirt him.
Kohler started four games at left guard and one at right tackle as a true freshman. That included his starts at guard against Nebraska and USC, remarkably, it turned out, while in the beginning stages of mono. He missed about a month that season when the virus became full blown. Sarkisian took note of the freshman's toughness in being able to bang with some of the biggest, most accomplished linemen in the country while having an illness that usually leaves the afflicted unable to lift his head off the couch for weeks.
In 2011 he started all 13 games at right tackle, but the toll on him playing so much caught up to him when he basically shut down training early this offseason. It was yet another reminder to Sarkisian and Cozzetto to the importance of depth and maintaining a rotation of linemen beyond the five starters.
Now that Kohler is back with his knee caps pointed in the right direction, he has been taking some of Schaefer's snaps at center this week. He has become a possible contingency should Schaefer, a veteran of 30 consecutive starts, get hurt this season.
Kohler says he is equally comfortable at tackle, guard and center.
"Coach Cozzetto has been preparing for the last two years, going on three years, for being versatile," he said. "I feel that anywhere he puts me I feel like I will play to the best of my ability - and play well."
Asked where coaches are telling him to be most ready to play beginning Sept. 1, Kohler laughed again.
"Center. Guard," he said. "And tackle."
Like his head coach, Kohler doesn't see the offensive line as a 2012 liability. The Huskies' changed offensive coordinators in January when Doug Nussmeier left to call Alabama's plays and Eric Kiesau arrived from Cal to replace him. But Kohler says the line's terminology for plays and protection calls haven't changed much. That has aided in jelling the offensive front.
"That was one nice aspect, even though we did change coordinators we kept the same stuff," Kohler said. "Yeah, we have new stuff, but Coach Cozzetto is very set in his ways. We're not going to change that.
"Actually, I feel like we are the strongest we've been in a couple years," the junior said. "Our O-line, we've been clicking very well. We're together. We're all friends. This year we are going to be one of the better O-lines we've had since Sark has been here."
Continuity. Flexibility. Camaraderie. And now, finally, depth. Maybe this offensive line will be a plus this season, after all, though its true tests start next weekend at CenturyLink Field.
"It's a lot more stable than most people would think," Kohler said. "Looking from the outside in is different than being there."