One Of Spring's Biggest Tasks: Developing The O-line
April 13, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Dan Cozzetto smiled the grin of a guy that has coached for 30 years in the NFL, the Pac-10, plus the Western Athletic and Big Sky conferences.
The Huskies' 56-year-old offensive line coach thought of the shoulder injuries that recently forced Colin Porter to give up football. He thought of the staph infection that set back Erik Kohler during offseason conditioning. He looked to his right during Friday's spring practice and saw center and leader Drew Schaefer, the third of his three most-experienced blockers, wearing a knit cap sitting out with a minor knee injury. He looked to his left and saw Colin Tanigawa watching because the returning starting guard is recovering from winter knee surgery.
"My Lent and Easter were good," Cozzetto joked, chuckling. "So hopefully the Good Lord will look down on me out here."
If He does this weekend, He will see the Cozzetto coaching an entirely new line in front of quarterback Keith Price as the Huskies scrimmage in their first Saturday practice this spring.
Redshirt sophomore Micah Hatchie is at left tackle replacing Senio Kelemete, last season's senior mainstay. Redshirt freshman Dexter Charles is at left guard for Tanigawa. Friday, redshirt sophomore Mike Criste took Schaefer's place at center. Redshirt sophomore James Atoe has been at right guard in place of Porter through six spring practices. And redshirt sophomore Ben Riva has been at right tackle, though Kohler is beginning to get worked back in there.
That's four redshirt sophomores and, in the Charles' case, a redshirt freshman. They are currently the five linchpins to Washington's high-flying offense, the guys blocking for Price, Washington's committee of running backs replacing Chris Polk and its deep, dangerous group of receivers.
Then again, it's only April.
"I'm confident. These guys are working hard," Cozzetto said his new guys. "They've come to where they are the type of guys that I like: They can run. They are athletic. They are strong. Ivan (Lewis, UW's strength coach) has done a tremendous job with them. So I am looking forward to them maturing this spring and getting ready to play.
"It's a challenge. But it gives some others guys an opportunity to get a lot of reps and move some players around. Tanigawa, he'll be back. With Drew down (Friday) and for a little while, it kind of opened my eyes up a little bit (to) the importance of the next guy that comes and the communication. I think they learned a lot (Friday) from that."
"We are growing," Sarkisian said. "I think we will get better for the opportunities we are getting."
This week, he named Atoe one of his early standouts of spring ball. The 6-6, 332-pounder from The Dalles, Ore., is the Huskies' biggest lineman, and coaches have been moving him out to tackle some recently to take advantage of his size.
Sarkisian is also impressed by the strong, athletic, 6-foot-5, 299-pound Hatchie, who played all 13 games last season on the field-goal and point-after-touchdown units plus some at tackle on offense.
"You look at him and you wouldn't think, `Man, that guy weighs 300 pounds.' That's a lot of weight," Sarkisian said of the native Hawaiian. "His maturity level for the game, I think, has really increased. He's playing well.
"Again, he's not perfect. It's a work in progress. But from where he was two years ago to where he is today, I am really impressed. And it has carried over in his play. He's playing really well. He'll learn from this stuff."
Cozzetto raves about Hatchie.
"He's got so much innate strength it's unbelievable," he said. "He can anchor. He has power. He just doesn't realize how much power he has.
"The one thing I like about Micah is that he doesn't get overexcited. He'll play through a bad snap and he'll get back to his fundamentals. He has tremendous concentration. He's not a freak show out there on an island, and that's not what I need. I need a guy that is going to protect the backside of Keith, so Keith has the confidence he can drop back there and that tackle will give him enough time on the backside in order for him to get that ball off.
"And when you've been put into a starting role, there's a whole new attitude toward the position - `it's my position.' It's his position to lose."
Cozzetto called the 6-4, 287-pound Charles "a big surprise." Before he redshirted last season, Charles was named first-team all-state by The Associated Press in his senior season at Stanwood High School north of Seattle.
"I think his demeanor coming in here, his attitude. He's not afraid of anything," Cozzetto said. "He's got tremendous leg strength. He's got very quick hands. He's got that attack-you mentality. ... Now, he's going to screw things up technique-wise, fundamental-wise. But he's going to go get you.
"Now, he's got to understand the whole picture of what's happening -- where's the running back, what's the launch point of the quarterback? So he's got to develop his game into where he knows what's going on."
That's exactly what spring is for.
Each Friday, Cozzetto is giving his inexperienced linemen written tests -- not just on their assignments but on what each player on offense should be doing on each play.
It's part of how the former San Francisco 49er line coach keeps his blockers aware of the bigger picture of where they fit in on offense, and how he makes them more able to play multiple line positions.
"It kind of gives me an idea of where they are at as far as their football knowledge, where they have to write in all the positions. `Where's the quarterback? Where's this guy? Where's the tight end? Who's he got?'" Cozzetto said. "That's kind of what I'm waiting to see, how they finish this test, evaluate it and then grade it in relation to how they play in a scrimmage."
And the blockers can "cheat" on their coach's tests. That's so they develop another essential to effective line play.
"The one thing: I want them to cheat off one another so that they start to communicate with one another," Cozzetto said. "It's OK to open your playbook and fill in the answers. At least they are writing them down."
Cozzetto is three years into developing this all-important line depth that is starting to show now. He knew it couldn't and wouldn't form overnight.
"We are going to have five scholarship guys coming in, or six. Our numbers are starting to get right," he said. "We're probably a recruiting class away from getting to where all of a sudden now you've got those guys in place that you have guys you will be able to redshirt and develop them right away, instead of having to play them right away.
"Not saying we are not going to ask guys coming in here to play (right away). But from the time we got here the numbers were way down, and it takes a while to get those numbers back."
Speaking of time, Cozzetto is the, um, most experienced assistant on the staff of the 38-year-old Sarkisian.
Not that there's any need to remind him of that.
"I've been on a lot of staffs," he says, with a wry smile. "The trouble is, I look around and I remember coaching against some of these guys. (Defensive coordinator Justin) Wilcox and (linebackers coach Peter) Sirmon, they were (playing at Oregon) when I was at Arizona State (in the 1990s). And obviously Sark was (quarterbacking) at BYU when I had Jake Plummer (as ASU's QB, in 1995 and '96).
"It's amazing how fast time goes."
QUICK HITTERS: Friday's two-hour practice in shorts and shoulder pads focused on the passing game. The remade defense continued to make impressive plays on the ball. LB Garret Gilliland ran step for step deep downfield to break up a pass to TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins. And Sarkisian yelled "Nice job, Thomas!" after LB Thomas Tutogi raced over to deflect away a throw on a slant route. ... WR James Johnson continued his confident, assertive month. The senior caught most of the many throws his way. ... Seferian-Jenkins had another one of his signature catches, a leaping grab over and between two defenders that were bracketing the 6-6, 258-pound sophomore on a high throw by Derrick Brown at the back of the end zone. ... Sarkisian termed "minor" Schaefer's knee injury plus the concussion that had CB Greg Ducre watching practice. ... Saturday will also include Sarkisian's coaches' clinic. Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin is expected to attend, along with several top high school coaches from the region.