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Originally published August 24, 2009 at 8:14 PM | Page modified August 25, 2009 at 2:05 PM

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Huskies' offensive line leaner, but is it better?

Most Washington linemen have slimmed down to allow the team to run to the perimeter, with a change in blocking schemes.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Steve Sarkisian couldn't bring USC's offensive line — rated by at least one preseason magazine as the best in the nation this year — with him once he was hired as coach of the Huskies.

So he's trying the next best thing., implementing at UW the same philosophy favoring quickness and agility that has proved successful for the Trojans, rather than just pure bulk and brawn.

"Definitely we want to be an athletic offensive line," Sarkisian said. "We are a big zone [blocking] team and a big get-to-the-perimeter team, and to do that, you have to be athletic."

That's a far cry from what the Huskies were a year ago when their season-opening offensive line averaged 333 pounds, with all five weighing at least 305.

"They were a big power team," Sarkisian said. "We're a zone team now."

Zone blocking basically means the linemen guard specific areas of the defense rather than going after individual defenders . It's sometimes compared to the difference between zone and man-to-man defense in basketball.

But it's a transition in styles that meant many of the UW linemen had to change their bodies.

The current starting O-line features just one 300-plus player — Ben Ossai, a starter since 2006 who is listed at 330 pounds. Each of the other four weighs between 281 and 295. That's similar to USC's line, which projects this year to have no starter over 300 pounds.

Losing the most weight of the starters is junior tackle Cody Habben, listed last year at 316 (though he said his heaviest was 320) and now listed at 295; and junior center Ryan Tolar, listed last year at 321 and now at 293.

While the style called for guys to be bigger last season, Habben acknowledges that some got a little too heavy.

"Two years ago, a lot of us cut a lot of weight and we were a lot thinner," he said. "I'm not necessarily sure what happened last year. I don't know if it sort of flew under the radar or what the deal was."

The difference was noticeable from the start as an offensive line that was basically the same as it had been in 2007 (losing only Chad Macklin) performed far worse. After helping pave the way for a rushing average of 203.1 yards in 2007, the Huskies managed just 99.3 rushing yards last season, all of that bulk often seeming overwhelmed by quicker and more athletic defensive linemen.

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Habben says the difference in the offseason "was just working harder," giving lots of credit to new head strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis, another USC transplant. "I definitely feel a lot lighter and able to move quicker, and conditioning now is not as hard, so it's nice."

Not everyone on the line was told to lose weight. Drew Schaefer went up from 275 to 288, and Senio Kelemete, who moved from defense in spring, from 260 to 281. Ossai also said he's gone from about 307 last year to 330 now, though he said his body fat has dropped appreciably and he's in a lot better shape.

Whatever the shape, UW's offensive line remains "a work in progress," said line coach Dan Cozzetto.

The starting five has remained constant through most of camp. Habben and Ossai on the left side, Tolar at center, Kelemete at right guard and Schaefer at right tackle. Schaefer was replaced by Nick Scott for a day last week, but Schaefer has since returned to the starting lineup. Tolar missed Saturday's scrimmage with a toe injury categorized as minor and was replaced by redshirt freshman Mykenna Ikehara.

The line struggled at times through the first week of camp, but Sarkisian felt it began to get better as the offense continued to expand its playbook and the physical changes made by the linemen began to pay off . Last week, for instance, the Huskies began to incorporate more outside running plays.

"They are quicker," Sarkisian said of the line. "We need to make people defend the whole field and not just the box."

Sarkisian says the zone blocking scheme is similar to that also used by Oregon and California, both among the best running teams in the Pac-10 for years. Zone blocking also typically brings more cut blocking, a legal but somewhat controversial method of blocking defenders below the knees.

"You look at teams that run outside zone — USC, UCLA, Cal, Oregon, ourselves — that's what you do," Sarkisian said. "It's a pretty common thing."

Ultimately, Ossai, a three-year starter, says the biggest difference may not be scheme.

"It's just more guys getting after it," he said. "We're tired of that 0-12 season."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

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