Perseverance Starting to Pay Off for Huskies' O-line
Oct. 11, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Dan Cozzetto has coached linemen for more than three decades. He's coached at colleges through the NFL.
Yet he's never seen what's been happening to his Huskies this year.
Three expected starters coming into spring ball are not even on the depth chart now. Guard Colin Porter had to retire because of degenerative conditions in both shoulders. Colin Tanigawa, the other starting guard, is out for the season because of a knee injury. Tackle Erik Koehler is out because he knee cap popped out for the second time in a month during the Sept. 8 game at LSU.
A fourth starter, Ben Riva, hasn't played since early in the opener against San Diego State Sept. 1 because he broke his forearm.
That's 80 percent of the five-man line gone. And 80 percent of the current line is made up of first-year starters.
"It's football. You are going to have injuries. This many? Probably not. I've never had this many," Cozzetto said following another practice for Saturday's game between Washington (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) and No. 11 USC (4-1, 2-1) at CenturyLink Field. "But if you stay in business long enough, you are going to see something different all the time. When you think you've seen it all, there's always going to be something new to come back.
"It's been fun," he said with wry smile. "It's been a challenge. Sometimes I hold my breath. I get a little grayer, a little balder. Or my blood pressure ... But I am still alive. I say a lot of prayers. I go to church, you know."
Now his guys are trying to get Keith Price to be a believer again.
The record-setting quarterback a year ago has acknowledged the shuffling along the offensive line has been one of his primary - and most affecting - concerns so far this season. From the time Riva went out in the first half of the opener through Price saying immediately after the week-two game at LSU "I felt the pressure" through his sincere, "I've got to get back to me being me" self-assessment this week, Price's comfort level with his vanguard has fluctuated.
The good news for the Huskies: It's on an upswing right now. Last weekend at Oregon marked the first time this season Washington had started the same offensive linemen in consecutive games: Micah sophomore Micah Hatchie at left tackle; redshirt freshman Dexter Charles at left guard; lone senior Drew Schaefer at center; true freshman Shane Brostek at right guard and redshirt sophomore James Atoe at right tackle.
Behind those five and their relative continuity, UW has rushed for 136 yards and a 61-yard touchdown by Bishop Sankey while beating eighth-ranked Stanford, then 208 yards and three scores last week at No. 2 Oregon.
Plus, Price was sacked just once in 32 pass calls against the swarming Ducks.
"Especially from the Oregon game I think you can see the run game definitely improved, and even our pass protection got a lot better," Schaefer said.
"Right now I think it's getting Keith more confident in us. I think we are starting to do our jobs effectively throughout the game, with minimal errors. Now we've got to carry it into this weekend against USC. Hopefully Keith will feel confident in us with how we played last week and we take care of business on Saturday."
"He feels he's a little rushed. But he doesn't have to be. We've got his back. We've learned from a lot of mistakes we made in the first couple games. As you can see the way we played at Oregon, we feel really good coming off that game. I think Keith is starting to realize that we have our assignments down."
To Cozzetto, the line coach who is part drill sergeant, part father figure, the Huskies will only go as far as their offensive front leads them.
"It's all about us," Cozzetto said. "Because if we don't get it done, nothing is going to get done. It doesn't matter who the quarterback is. It doesn't matter who the running back is. If we don't get it done up front nothing's going to happen."
It's been happening lately for Sankey and the run game. The sophomore from Spokane has had his two best days as a Husky the last two weeks behind the same O-line. He followed his career-high 144 yards rushing versus Stanford with 104 yards and two touchdowns at Oregon.
Compare that to Sept. 8 at LSU, when Koehler went down, Sankey gained 20 yards on nine carries and the team gained 26 yards on 24 runs in a 41-3 loss.
"Putting those young guys in there ... they learned early what you can and cannot do to play at this level, you know, going down to LSU and playing against Stanford and Oregon already," Schaefer said. "Those are some are some hard lessons to learn, but in the long run they are really learning from them and improving.
"It's just chemistry. It started in camp when some of the guys went down early. Some of the other guys have stepped up. They've gotten to play three or four games already. That's the main thing on the offensive line, guys playing together and being on the same page with the quarterback and the running backs. For a lot of those guys, the more experience they get the better they are going to improve."
Schaefer, a second-team all-academic Pac-12 selection last season, will be making his 36th consecutive start Saturday against USC's talented, active defensive front. Nobody else on the line had made a college start until last month.
That inexperience has made the irascible Cozzetto more of a nuanced coach this season.
"I'm constantly evaluating myself: How much am I giving them? How much are they able to do?" he said. "I am like their parent. I don't want to hurt them, mentally, put them in a situation where they don't have success and then they go in the tank. You know, when do I turn it on? When do I turn it off? Where is he at? Can he take hard coaching, or do I have to approach him a different way?
"Because they've been put up front at the front line all of a sudden. Now, here it comes."
The ol' line coach sees this early season as a metaphor for life beyond the field.
"It is life. You have ups. You have downs. Nobody's dying, OK? Nobody's dying. We've had some crises," Cozzetto said.
"The life lesson, I guess, is: When you go through crises, you do what you have to do to get through it, then you go back to what you were doing before the crises happened. Just keep pounding and pounding and pounding - and getting up. I don't want to be holding a sign up somewhere (that says), `I couldn't hold up four weak or four strong. And have pity on me.' I'm not going to do that.
"I'm just going to continue to slug along, like I've been taught by some of the finest coaches around. And we'll get it done.
"We'll get it done."
INSIDE THE DAWGS: Saturday's forecast is calling for a 50-percent chance of UW's first rain game this season and the end of Seattle's unusual three months of constant sun. "I'd like to think it won't have that much of an impact," coach Steve Sarkisian said following Thursday morning's practice. "Obviously, our guys have had enough experience practicing and playing in the rain." ... In the last 19 games of this storied series, Washington has won nine games and USC nine, with one tie. ... This will be the first time in 41 games the teams have played in Seattle that it will not be inside Husky Stadium. Renovations continue there, with the entire roof over the new south stands completed this week. ... The Huskies have 34 players from Southern California, headlined by Price. The QB grew up in Compton, near USC's campus south of downtown Los Angeles. USC has just two players from Washington, freshmen Zach Banner (Lakewood) and Alex Wood (Mercer Island).