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Originally published August 18, 2010 at 6:10 PM | Page modified August 19, 2010 at 5:14 PM

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Huskies' offensive line could be surprising source of strength

UW's linemen have combined to start 86 games in their careers, the most for the Huskies in at least two decades.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A staple of college football preview magazines these days is rating each team in a conference by position groupings.

And one by one, as they arrived on newsstands this summer, the magazines agreed that when it came to Pac-10 offensive lines, UW's projects as one of the bottom four — the Huskies were generally picked seventh or eighth.

To which UW coach Steve Sarkisian launched a pre-emptive defense when he met the media before fall camp began, saying that he'd seen some of the ratings and that "in my humble opinion, it should be a position of strength."

Sarkisian cited the fact that UW returns seven players on the offensive line that started at least one game last season (and another who started a game in 2008). UW's linemen, in fact, have combined to start 86 games in their careers, the most for the Huskies in at least two decades.

And nothing he has seen in the first week-and-a-half of camp has altered Sarkisian's preseason optimism.

"I feel great about where we are at," he said Wednesday. "They are playing very cohesive right now."

That's in part because the starting line has varied little throughout camp, a contrast to a year ago.

While 2009 was obviously a year of transition for the Huskies in every way as Sarkisian took over for Tyrone Willingham, the offensive line might have undergone the biggest facelift.

Gone was the man-to-man blocking scheme that emphasized bulk in favor of a zone blocking philosophy favoring agility, athleticism and teamwork.

The first task was to get in the right shape to run the new scheme, which for most of the linemen meant losing weight. The no-longer-quite-so Husky OL lost a combined 200 pounds before the 2009 season, a transformation that has continued for some players into 2010.

And in search of the right players for the scheme, the Huskies moved two defensive linemen — Senio Kelemete and Nick Wood — to offense, while also making some subtle moves with other players (moving Ryan Tolar from center to guard, Drew Schaefer from tackle to center, etc.).

"We spread things out, ask linemen to get out and run," said UW offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto. "We had to find people who could at least get us in a situation to have success, so you saw a lot of the changes, defensive linemen coming over, because we had to be more athletic upfront and have the demeanor about 'let's go get after them.' "

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But after a 2009 season of experimentation — nine different players started at least one game and four of the five spots saw at least two different players start — the Huskies appear to have found a stable front five. Working with the first unit almost exclusively throughout camp have been Kelemete, a junior, at left tackle; Tolar, a senior, at left guard; Schaefer, a sophomore, a center; Mykenna Ikehara, a sophomore at right guard; and Cody Habben, a senior, at right tackle.

The key to that grouping has been the ability of Kelemete, who played guard last year, to make the move to left tackle, and Schaefer to center, maybe the two most critical positions.

"I think (quarterback) Jake (Locker) is comfortable with the center and that left tackle protecting his blind side," Cozzetto said.

That's not to say there won't continue to be competition. Sarkisian and Cozzetto each lavished praise on the recent play of former walk-on Greg Christine, who can play guard or tackle.

The coaches also like the improved depth given by seven true freshman linemen who signed as part of the Class of 2010. Two are making a serious run at being in the two-deep this year and likely playing — tackle Erik Kohler of Camarillo, Calif., and guard Colin Porter of Bothell. The others could be headed to redshirt seasons.

Cozzetto adds it up and says there's no question the offensive line is in a much better state than it was a year ago, a season when the Huskies improved markedly in all their stats from 2008.

"They have the potential," he said. "They have the capability. I'm really happy with how they have progressed."

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

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