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Originally published Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 7:31 PM

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Washington's rebuilt offensive line makes strides, gains confidence

A young, unproven Husky offensive line has improved its run blocking, but needs to do a better job of protecting quarterback Keith Price.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

USC @ UW, 4 p.m., Ch. 13

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Dan Cozzetto has been coaching college or pro football since 1979. Still, every season brings something unique.

"I haven't seen it all," he said. "There's always something new."

One thing never changes, says Washington's offensive-line coach.

"It's all about us," he said Wednesday. "Because if we don't get it done, nothing is going to get done. It doesn't matter who your quarterback is. It doesn't matter who your running back is. If we don't get it done up front, nothing is going to happen."

So when Cozzetto hears about the struggles of quarterback Keith Price, he knows it's a reflection of the entire offense — beginning with a line that has been ravaged by injuries.

As UW prepares to host No. 11 USC on Saturday at CenturyLink Field, it again will be without three potential starters on this year's team (Colin Porter, Colin Tanigawa and Erik Kohler). The status of another (Ben Riva) is still uncertain.

Porter retired in the spring due to chronic shoulder issues, Tanigawa is out for the year with a knee injury and Kohler is also out with a knee injury. Riva, recovering from a broken forearm suffered against San Diego State, hasn't played since but is listed on the depth chart for this week and could see action.

"It's football," Cozzetto said. "You are going to have injuries. This many? Probably not this many. ... It's been a challenge."

One he thinks the Huskies are on the road to overcoming.

The scoreboard in Eugene on Saturday revealed another disappointing loss to the Ducks, 52-21. But the biggest positive may have been the play of an offensive line featuring one senior (center Drew Schaefer) and four first-year starters who are freshmen or sophomores.

"I thought we got better last week, I really did," said UW coach Steve Sarkisian. "I was proud of our guys up front. ... I think that as we grow together, as we play more together, as we can rely on one another, as we can communicate better, as we get more experience up front, we should improve. And that's what we've seen so far."

Washington rushed for 208 yards against Oregon, and tailback Bishop Sankey to record his third straight 100-yard game.

One of the new starters, redshirt freshman guard Dexter Charles, felt good about the game despite the score.

"We did well," he said. "It gives us trust in each other even more, that we know we can do it."

The trick is making sure Price shares the same feeling of trust.

"He feels he is a little more rushed," Schaefer said of the Huskies' quarterback. "But he doesn't need to be because we are going to have his back. We've learned from a lot of the mistakes that we made in the first couple of games, and you can see in how we played against Oregon. We felt really good competing in that game. I think we can continue to build off that momentum, and I think Keith is starting to realize we have our assignments down."

Still, pass protection remains a work in progress. Sarkisian said he thinks run blocking may just better fit the mentality of some younger players, such as Charles and true freshman Shane Brostek.

"You are allowed to get your aggression out because you are moving forward, where in pass blocking the majority of time you are moving backward," Sarkisian said. "And so for guys like a Dexter Charles or a Shane Brostek — that kind of nasty, physical type of O-linemen — I'm sure they prefer moving forward. But I think it varies for each guy. Some guys are better pass protectors than run blockers."

Charles said, "I'd agree that run blocking is a little easier."

That's where Cozzetto comes in, making sure the players aren't being asked to do more than they are capable of in terms of technique and specific protections.

"The number one thing is building your quarterback's confidence around your front five," Cozzetto said. "... He's like your mother back there. You've got to do your best to protect him. He can get out of some things, but he can't be taking shots through the middle of the formation. Above all, we cannot have assignment errors, because we risk the chance of getting that kid hurt. So we've had to take a direct responsibility because it is our responsibility to make sure Keith plays the game with a sound mind and a clean jersey. We have to continue to build his confidence around us."

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

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