April 9, 2013
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - If the Huskies reach their declared goal of a championship in 2013, they may end up thanking surfing and a beach in Southern California.
Those got the key to the offensive line - and thus Keith Price and the entire offense - back on UW's practice field this month.
Erik Kohler spent his school vacation time this past winter and early spring back home in Camarillo, Ventura County, continuing the rehabilitation of his surgically repaired right knee. More days than not, Washington's 6-foot-4, 299-pound junior offensive lineman made the 20-minute drive down the 101 freeway to Ventura Point, a spot just beyond the county fairgrounds .
Barefoot in the sand or in shoes along the promenade that parallels the shore, Kohler would run to strengthen the ligament surgeons transplanted from his hamstring last Sept. 28. That replaced the ligament shredded by his right knee cap, which popped out of place early in last season's second game, at LSU. The displacement of the knee cap was so violent it tore his quadriceps muscle.
Tuesday, Kohler finished his fourth practice since that injury. He worked some at center and at right tackle in UW's 10th practice of the spring. The goal is to work the two-year starter into becoming a possible replacement at center for departed co-captain Drew Schaefer.
He says the knee feels better and stronger than it ever has. That means the offense is getting its third returning starting lineman back - thanks to all the beach running and hanging 10 Kohler did on his 10-foot board at Ventura Point.
"I love going to the beach," he said, smiling on the edge of East Field following Tuesday morning's two-hour practice. "I've been going to the beach since I was 3 years old. I started surfing when I was eight. You can't get me out of the water.
"I did a lot of treatment. And a lot of running. I mean, I was at the beach every day. I was surfing and running on the sand.
"Ventura Point. It's a great little surf spot. Probably about five-, six-foot waves. It's fun. Fun waves."
The fun will be back for Price and the Huskies' accelerated, no-huddle offense if they can get Kohler anchored in the middle of their line.
When Kohler was out for the final 11 games of 2012, Price was often under siege from opposing pass rushers. The lack of consistent protection was a large factor in Price going from school records of 33 touchdown throws and a 161.9 passing efficiency mark with 11 interceptions in 2011 to 19 TDs, an efficiency of 124.4 with 13 INTs last season.
Kohler is their most experienced returning starter on a line that is losing only Schaefer from last season. He knows the offense and what each man on the line needs to do on every play, since he has played every blocking position.
That is, except center.
"Center is interesting," he said. "It's something I've never done before. I've never snapped in my life before this year. It's just a different position.
"I like to talk. I like to communicate, so that part of it is not hard. It's just the snapping aspect. We are always in `gun.' I've got to get it down."
Coach Steve Sarkisian noted last week upon Kohler's return that when his big junior has gotten fatigued later in these first practices back his snaps have become errant.
There is reason for Kohler to be winded. Washington's biggest accomplishment this spring has been installing and maintaining a frenetic, no-huddle offense as a main philosophy. The Huskies have been running 130-plus plays in just over an hour during the first 10 of 15 spring practices.
"Erik is working himself into shape," Sarkisian said. "With this offense one of the biggest things coming off of injury is one, your health from the injury you've had, but two is your conditioning to perform under the physical stress that this offense places you in. And then to do it at center and to have the ability to snap it accurately can be pretty challenging.
"So we haven't exclusively put Erik at center because of that. But we are trying to get him some opportunities to show what he can do. And that's why you are seeing him at tackle and some at center."
Schaefer started 43 games at UW, including 37 of his last 39 at center from 2010-12.When he graduated following December's MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, Sarkisian and veteran offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto decided to move Kohler's experience, intelligence, quickness and strength inside from right tackle to center.
"I was a little surprised. But at the same time, I welcomed it. I want to play all five positions," Kohler said. "I want to be versatile. I want to be able to play anything I can."
For now, he is sharing time at center with Mike Criste, a redshirt junior who started five games at right guard last season as UW searched for the right combination amid injuries and inconsistency up front.
"He's just an experienced guy, a bright guy. He has good command of our offense and our schemes," Sarkisian said of Kohler. "He is able to make the calls necessary. And we think he is athletic enough and still stout enough to handle a good nose (tackle)."
Kohler had surgery the day after last September's Stanford game, after waiting a few weeks for swelling in the knee to subside. Doctors sewed together the torn quadriceps, took the hamstring ligament and made it his new one in his knee and inserted biodegradable screws to reinforce the fix.
"I'm actually better off that I was before, because my knee cap is centered now," Kohler said. "I have a brand new ligament in there. The quad, that was just a matter of sewing it back together. That's fine.
"It's way better than it was before. It's a lot stronger. The knee cap is in the right place now. And it ain't movin'."
Kohler admits he's not 100-percent back to full conditioning and strength yet. Then again, the opener against Boise State is still more than 3½ months away.
"I wouldn't say `normal.' But I'm getting there," he said, adding the toughest adjustment to his new position is "just being 100 percent with the snaps, all game long.
Kohler has talked to Schaefer since the position shift about the finer points of playing center -- and thus being the anchor to the most important part of UW's go-go offense this fall.
"I've talked to him about snapping, getting some pointers, getting more aware of every, single position. It's just a few tips," he said.
"But it's just a matter of being thrown in the fire and doing it."
INSIDE THE DAWGS: Sarkisian said assorted, minor nicks to numerous players have him still unsure of the format for the spring game April 20 at Seattle Center's Memorial Stadium under the Space Needle. But he hopes to be able to show off his new, no-huddle offense and fast pace of play for fans, who will be admitted for free to the 4 p.m. game that Saturday, and for the television audience on Pac-12 Networks. "That's the biggest thing; for our fans we want it to be entertaining," he said. ... Returning K Travis Coons and early enrolling freshman Cameron Van Winkle each boomed multiple, 48-yard field goals through the uprights to end the special-teams portion of practice. Van Winkle's last kick would have been good from 58 yards or longer. It slammed into the metal near the top of the tower used to film practice from high and behind the goal post.