CHRISTIAN CAPLE

As spring nears end, have UW Huskies found new O-line starters?

Apr 21, 2023, 10:57 AM

UW Huskies Pac-12...

UW Huskies offensive line prepares for a snap on Nov. 19, 2022. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — A glut of star players chose to return for another season with the UW Huskies, which means next weekend’s NFL Draft could be a scant one for their alumni.

Should UW Huskies move Voi Tunuufi over with Sav’ell Smalls moving on?

It will be interesting to monitor, though, for several former Huskies hoping to catch on in the pros, and for three players from the same position group: offensive linemen Jaxson Kirkland, Henry Bainivalu and Corey Luciano.

Kirkland and Bainivalu were multiyear starters at guard and UW’s only NFL combine invitees, and Luciano started every game last season at center … which should tell you where the 2023 Huskies must replace the most departed talent.

While UW’s offensive line will feature three new starters — after last year’s group allowed only seven sacks in 13 games, tied for second-fewest in the FBS — the Huskies appear to have settled on a pretty clear-cut top five, at least coming out of spring practices, which conclude Saturday with UW’s annual “spring preview” event at Husky Stadium.

Aside from the first few practices, when select No. 2s stepped in for at least a few reps with some of the starters, the No. 1 line has remained almost completely unchanged: Troy Fautanu at left tackle; Julius Buelow at left guard; Matteo Mele at center; Nate Kalepo at right guard; and Roger Rosengarten at right tackle.

Fautanu and Rosengarten are returning starters. Both impressed last season, as neither was credited with allowing a sack, per Pro Football Focus, and the duo allowed only two quarterback hits apiece.

Pre-spring, it seemed that fourth-year sophomore Geirean Hatchett might compete for a starting job, considering he spent last season as the No. 2 right guard. While coaches are leveraging Hatchett’s versatility by repping him at three different positions — mostly right guard and right tackle, but some center, too — Buelow and Kalepo have taken nearly all of the No. 1 reps at left and right guard, respectively, during recent practices.

Coach Kalen DeBoer said last week that he “feel(s) good about those five guys up front.”

That doesn’t mean the competition is over, of course. Two springs ago, Ulumoo Ale was a returning starter at left guard. By the second week of fall camp, Buelow had passed him on the depth chart. O-line coach Scott Huff made sure this spring to get several different players as many reps as possible, sometimes at multiple positions. With Buelow and Kalepo taking such a large share of the No. 1 reps, it seems coaches want to spend as much time as possible building chemistry among the same five linemen.

While there seemed some intrigue around the guard spots coming into spring, it became immediately apparent that Mele was locked in as Luciano’s replacement at center. He’s been a mainstay with the No. 1 offensive line since Day 1.

Offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb wants to see him take more ownership of running the show.

“You can see him sometimes almost reminding himself, ‘I’ve got to get the guys going, I’ve got to get the energy right, I’ve got to get the guys running to the line of scrimmage,’” Grubb said. “So I know it means something to him, and he’s trying to get better at it. So we’re continuing to work with him on it.”

The real competition at center will be for the backup job, where redshirt freshman Parker Brailsford and true freshman Landen Hatchett, an early enrollee, have taken reps with the No. 2 offense. Brailsford seems like the logical choice to begin the season behind Mele on the depth chart, but coaches seem to be giving Hatchett, Geirean’s younger brother, to earn a look.

Geirean Hatchett and fellow 2020 signee Gaard Memmelaar currently slot as the backup guards, though Myles Murao steps in at right guard with the No. 2 o-line when Hatchett moves out to right tackle. Samuel Peacock, another 2020 signee, plays right tackle when Hatchett is at right guard, and the No. 2 left-tackle reps have gone to R.J. Wyrsch and Brailsford.

The top five might be set, at least for now. But there is a lot of competition for the backup jobs, among a bunch of young players with minimal combined game experience. The Huskies were fortunate to stay healthy on the offensive line in 2022, but need to continue developing some of those second-stringers — especially at tackle, where there is precious little experience behind Fautanu and Rosengarten — in case they aren’t so lucky this year.

This column from UW Huskies football insider Christian Caple is exclusive to Seattle Sports. Subscribe to OnMontlake.com for full access to Caple’s in-depth Husky coverage.

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