“Panda.” The eater. And the surfer dude. Those three are the returning leaders of the group whose play will determine how well Keith Price, the offense – and thus the entire Huskies team – does in 2013.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Ben Riva doesn’t tippy toe around the issue.
Which is great, because the Huskies don’t need a 6-foot-6, 306-pound left tackle that tippy toes.
“We all know that the success of the team starts with us. It’s on us. If we don’t get it done then the offense won’t produce,” Riva says, dead on.
“That’s definitely been our sole focus this year, to get the offense to where it was in 2011, and having Keith be comfortable.
“Because, obviously, everybody knows if he’s cozy back there he can tear people apart.”
“Keith,” of course, is Keith Price. Huskies fans tend to pin the key to Washington’s 2013 season and coach Steve Sarkisian’s stated quest for true championship contention upon the senior quarterback performing like he did in 2011. That’s when he became a record-setting passer and improvisational runner who outplayed Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III in the Alamo Bowl.
Many believe to do that Price needs career seasons of support from leading receivers Kasen Williams and, whenever he returns from a broken finger, Austin Seferian-Jenkins. That Price needs Bishop Sankey to rush for near or more than the 1,400 yards he had last season.
Yet absolutely none of that has a chance to occur if seven giant men – among them a “Panda,” a surfer dude and a new left tackle who has gained 36 pounds in three years -- aren’t huge for UW this season.
Riva is the junior left tackle who eats six meals a day to maintain his 306 pounds. The left guard is Dexter Charles. The center is Mike Criste. The right guards are James Atoe, and when he fully returns soon from reconstructive knee surgery, Colin “Panda” Tanigawa. The right tackle is Micah Hatchie. Erik Kohler will likely replace Atoe at right guard – that is, when the SoCal surfer dude from Ventura County, California gets back soon from a torn knee ligament, torn quadriceps and a June injury to his left foot.
Seven offensive linemen, driven hard by Dan Cozzetto, UW’s irascible, 31-year veteran of college and NFL line coaching.
Those are the keys to the Huskies’ 2013.
“Yeah, Coach Cozzetto he always preaches it: Basically, we are just going to control the game. If we are getting our (rear ends) kicked, we as a team are not going to be successful,” Tanigawa said. “If we are out there handling our business, then we are going to score points.”
Tanigawa has no problem with the notion that this entire season – more than any recent Huskies one – is riding on the offensive line.
In fact, he says the linemen are embracing that fact as a point of pride.
“Yeah, definitely. That’s the way we want it,” he said. “Might as well be that way.”
Tuesday, Riva, Charles, Criste, Tanigawa and Hatchie continued to progress and grow closer – even nastier -- together during the Huskies’ first full scrimmage of the preseason. They gave Price plenty of time to, as the quarterback assessed afterward, “take what the defensive gave me.”
Viola! By unofficial count, Price completed 17 of 22 throws in the scrimmage. He and the Huskies will take those numbers once the games get real, beginning with the Aug. 31 Husky Stadium unveiling against Boise State.
“What I like about this group, especially with Colin coming back and the move of Ben to left tackle, this group’s got some nastiness to it,” Sarkisian said. “Four of those five guys are about as nasty as you can find – and that’s a good thing. That’s what you want up front. And to think James Atoe is a backup, we get Shane Brostek back as a backup, we’re getting Kohler back – that’s a deep group with a lot of experience.
“They play the game the way you want them to play the game, which is going to be good for us.”
Good enough to define this Huskies’ season.
“It just really comes down to us doing our job,” Charles said. “As long as we can do that, Keith can play.
“We all know that. We’ll keep him clean, he’ll make the plays – and we’ll have a good time.”
A potentially historic time, too.
PRICE NEEDS THESE GUYS
Every team that has goal posts talks about how important its offensive line is. But for Washington, its current offensive system and its quarterback, the O-line is absolutely paramount.
When Price set UW records with 33 touchdown passes, a completion rate of 66.9 percent and a pass efficiency of 161.09 two seasons ago, he had the same five starting linemen blocking for him over 11 consecutive games. Tanigawa injured his knee in late November and missed the final two games that year. Six linemen started at the five positions in 2011.
By the third game of last season, the O-line had only one of the previous season’s starters remaining healthy: center Drew Schaefer. Four-fifths of the line was lost to injuries for parts of the season, for the entire year or forever. Consequently Price spent most of 2012 running for his life.
Four different blockers started at right guard. Four guys started at right tackle. Criste was a third-stringer entering the season. By week two he was making his second career start – in a mad house at LSU.
Nine different linemen started at least one game. It wasn’t until just before Thanksgiving, in the win at Colorado, that UW had the same starting line blocking for Price over four consecutive games.
Colin Porter, who should be a third-year starter at guard right now, was forced to retire in the spring of 2012 because of chronic shoulder injuries. Tanigawa played one game last season before he shredded his knee Sept. 8. Kohler was gone for the year by halftime of that second game at LSU because he dislocated his knee cap.
Price admits he was preoccupied with all the flux in front of him, and it showed. He was often under duress within two seconds of taking a snap. He got so used to having to scramble for self-preservation that he began doing it prematurely on pass plays on the relatively few times defenders weren’t actually swarming him.
Price threw 18 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions while the Huskies allowed 38 sacks in 13 games.
“They’ve had their bumps and bruises along the way. They’ve had some hard times, and we’ve all witnessed a lot of those,” Sarkisian said. “You go one of two ways when you have those rough times: You wilt and succumb to it all; or you work and start to fight back and have pride in what you do, and the next opportunity you get your overcome it.”
This offensive line has chosen the latter path.
“I think it’s a real tribute to Danny and his ability to mentor these guys and to develop a mentally tough group,” Sarkisian said. “They are playing that way.”
Hatchie agrees the linemen are far tighter. It’s a bond born out of familiarity -- and out of having gone through times such as allowing four sacks while trying to keep NFL-quality pass rushers out of their backfield and 92,000 zanies out of their heads at LSU last September.
“We have more communication,” Hatchie says. “And we’ve all grown together.”
Indeed, UW is returning eight blockers who have experience starting a game. A year older makes them a year smarter – and presumably a year better, though we will soon find that out.
“I feel like our communication is much stronger this year with us five,” Criste said. “That was our problem last year, we had new guys. But as the year went on we got a lot stronger in communicating and you could see that. In the spring we got even stronger.”
THE NERVE CENTER
Every team’s offensive linemen are naturally bonded.
They get up before dawn to lift weights with each other all winter and spring. In the summer they run conditioning sprints in the same groups. In season they bang into each other incessantly, usually with a sharp-tongued, take-no-prisoners line coach berating them to do more. The harder the task, the tighter the bond.
They also relate to each other well because they tend to share a common trait: intelligence. Offensive linemen are usually among the smartest players on a team, the ones often majoring in business or science or math – UW’s last Academic All-America, in 1991, was Ed Cunningham, a center. Last year’s 101 Club Scholarship winner as Husky football’s top student-athlete was Schaefer – you guessed it, a center.
The amount of information offensive linemen must process before each snap to make protection calls alone is daunting. They then must adjust those calls to what the defense is showing. They must pick up blitzers while processing the quarterback’s play call at the line. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget the snap count!
They must do all this in the span of 10 seconds or so that Sarkisian wants between plays for his fast-paced, no-huddle offense this season.
It’s telling that backup tight end Evan Hudson’s biggest revelation to moving to defensive tackle this month has been that basically all he now has to do is line up and go.
“You mean this is all we have to do?” Hudson asked defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha (formerly Jamora) when the senior was showing him defensive-line work this month.
During an offensive-line drill this week, Cozzetto was explaining to the linemen how each position’s protection call will change depending on whether the defender on the right end is 2 yards off the ball, head up on the offensive tackle or shading on the tackle’s outside shoulder. Three different calls, depending on where an end’s or outside linebacker’s feet are before the snap.
Call the wrong protection, and we are all ripping Price for not getting rid of the ball in time, or for throwing an incompletion – or worse – under duress.
Noticeably, there are no seniors on this year’s offensive line. Perhaps because of that, there seems to be no Alpha Dawg among them. That also helps make this line more cohesive than any of the five Sarkisian has had leading his Huskies offenses.
Each Monday night the O-linemen go to Valarmos Pizzeria just north of the UW campus on Sand Point Way to eat calzones. They go to each other’s houses on other nights, to hang out or barbeque.
When the freshmen arrived on campus last month, the upperclassmen took them to the Lake City home of Riva’s girlfriend, Huskies softball ace Kaitlin Inglesby, for a big barbeque.
“The O-line knows they’re welcome at my place anytime to hangout,” Inglesby told me Wednesday – though she added that the big guys know they need to bring their own food to cook so they don’t eat her out of house and home.
The cookouts add to the O-line’s bonding – and thus to the Huskies’ chances this season.
“The cohesiveness, we’ve really made it a priority this year,” Tanigawa said. “We are going to bust it every day to make a run at a championship.”
Though he brushes off the development, Riva has emerged as the line’s leader through his dogged work and humor. Because of that, because of being the all-important left tackle, one might expect Riva to take extra pride in his status among his fellow linemen.
“No, not at all,” he says. “I play for the Huskies. I take that as a badge of honor.”
Riva thinks the togetherness stems from the fact this is the first UW offensive line recruited entirely by Sarkisian and his staff, who arrived in January 2009.
“These are some lifelong friends. We are really jelling, just in this past year,” Riva said. “All of the guys here now are Sark’s guys, and we’re all close. We hang out a lot. We do a lot of activities together.”
One of Riva’s favorite activities is eating.
He shakes his head now recalling that when he arrived at UW from Seattle’s O’Dea High School in 2010 he weighed 270 pounds.
“Right now?” Riva said last weekend. “I was 306 before dinner.
“I try to eat six meals a day.”
Not snacks. That’s six, full, more-than-square meals a day.
“If I don’t eat a ton, I will lose weight,” he says. “So I have to stuff my face at all times. A lot of protein. Complex carbohydrates, a lot of sweet potatoes, that sort of stuff. A lot of veggies. I try to eat as ‘clean’ as I can, because you don’t want bad weight, obviously. Not a whole lot of Mickey D’s.
“I go home to mom a lot. She’s a great cook, spaghetti and meatballs.”
So there’s another bonding agent among these linemen: Food.
Hey, whatever gets this key group working well together.
“This group is a very tight-knit group, this offensive-line group. They are very together,” he said. “They are almost like in a pack in a sense, and that’s a great thing. They are looking out for one another on the field, off the field. That’s exactly how you want them to be. When they get disconnected, that’s not a good thing.
“So I feel good about this group coming together as one, which is a big deal to us.”
MAKING PRICE HAPPY
Monday, Tanigawa got back into full scrimmaging at guard for the first time since his second knee injury in 10 months last September.
“I’m still thankful as hell, man,” he said after the practice. “I’m so thankful every day being out here.”
About that “Panda” nickname: It comes from Tanigawa’s soft facial features and dark eyes, not his personality.
Even Cozzetto calls him that.
“He looks like a panda,” Riva says. “And he says that’s what people in high school (at Loyola in Los Angeles) called him, too.”
Tanigawa just shrugs. It’s almost a joke now, given his reputation as a nasty, get-out-of-my-way dude while on the field.
For Riva, Tanigawa’s return – and the eventual one of Kohler, perhaps next month – will strengthen this all-important offensive line even more. That, in turn, should make Price far more comfortable than he was at any time last season.
And as 2011 showed, a comfortable Price is a potentially lethal one.
So what’s Riva, the pivotal left tackle, all-important vanguard of Price’s blind side, see in his quarterback now, 17 days before the season begins against Boise State?
“He’s really happy,” Riva said. “He’s got his smile on and he’s having fun.
“It’s his senior year, and we want to make it the best for him.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
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