SEATTLE _ When the new football coaches at the University of Washington arrived in the winter of 2008, one of their first tasks was to ask the offensive linemen to shed the fat.
A year later, they asked their linemen to bulk up by adding some muscle.
And one game into the 2010 season, Steve Sarkisian was asking his offensive line to get more, shall we say, intestinal fortitude.
After the season-opening loss to Brigham Young on Saturday evening, Sarkisian expressed frustration over a continued lack of physicality by his offensive linemen. It’s an issue that dates back to the middle of last season, when the Huskies got pushed around far too often by bigger, and often nastier, teams.
“Our inability to knock people off the ball is concerning to me,” Sarkisian said after the 23-17 loss to BYU on Saturday. “It’s been concerning, and we’ll continue to address it.”
Having spent the good part of the last year challenging his linemen, he has taken on a new tact this week. A kinder, gentler Sarkisian is still looking for more aggression from the UW offensive line but is going about it more like Dr. Phil than Rex Ryan.
“We’re taking a little bit more of a cerebral-er approach,” Sarkisian said Wednesday afternoon, “but one that I think they’re responding to. And I’ve really seen it out of the guys here the last two days.”
Rather than questioning anyone’s manhood, Sarkisian is going about his business by making sure the linemen are all working in unison. Miscommunication was a factor in the Huskies’ offensive struggles Saturday, and that has taken precedence at practices this week.
“Ultimately, you can be physical when you really know what you’re doing and you’re on the same page with the guy next to you,” Sarkisian said Wednesday. “And I think that’s something that’s key. As much as I want guys to just fire off the football and be physical and knock guys around and butting heads and all that, we need to work together.
“And that’s been a big point of emphasis of mine now since looking at the film Sunday and going back and coming to work Monday. I just want us on the same page, and if we’re on the same page, then it’s time to really fire off.”
Since the start of the 2009 season, the Huskies’ offensive line has been solid in terms of quarterback protection and getting out in space but has not been able to maul opponents.
The most obvious statistic that shows UW’s struggles in physicality is in short yardage. In the BYU game, the Huskies had four snaps on downs when they needed two yards or less, and they didn’t gain a single yard. Two runs were stopped at the line of scrimmage, while the other two plays resulted in incomplete passes.
The performance brought back memories of last year’s overtime loss to Notre Dame, during which the Huskies failed to score on seven consecutive attempts at or inside the Irish’s 2-yard line.
In a game at UCLA last fall, the Huskies had a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line but had to settle for a field goal. Against Oregon, a first-and-goal at the 4 resulted in no points after a fourth-down interception in the end zone.
For the season, UW was 26 of 44 on third or fourth downs and two yards or less to go last fall. The Huskies led the Pac-10 in third-down conversion rate (46.2 percent), but it’s hard not to wonder how good UW could have been had its short yardage offense been more effective.
Saturday’s performance didn’t do much to the Huskies’ confidence when it comes to short-yardage situations. By failing to convert any of four opportunities on third and fourth downs when needing two yards or less, UW showed that one of the weaknesses of last year’s team has yet to get fixed.
The Huskies’ first short-yardage play, on a third-and-1 midway through the second quarter, resulted in quarterback Jake Locker getting stuffed at the line on a quarterback keeper. The other three opportunities came during a second half that saw BYU outscore UW 10-0 en route to victory. Locker threw a pair of incomplete passes — the most devastating of which came on a fourth-and-2 throw into the end zone with 12:24 remaining — and running back Chris Polk failed to pick up a yard on third-and-1.
“I thought that had a big impact on the ball game,” Sarkisian said earlier this week.
Sarkisian challenged his linemen after Saturday’s game and told reporters Monday that he was going to get true freshmen Erik Kohler and Colin Porter into the mix this week. While both freshmen have seen some snaps with the No. 1 offense, the starting lineup appears likely to stay the same.
Any thoughts among the veteran linemen are being kept within the UW locker room. Offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto turned down interview requests this week and did not make any of his linemen available to the media Wednesday.
The Huskies hope to let the linemen do their talking on the field. And maybe the new approach will bring out the best in this group.
“We’re not the Nebraska Cornhuskers with Tommie Frazier and those guys, and Lawrence Phillips, where they were just lining up and pounding you off the ball,” Sarkisian said Monday. “But we’re physical enough to block people. But if you don’t block the right guys, it can make it difficult. We’ve got to make sure we’re blocking the right guys.”
Running back Johri Fogerson (hip pointer) sat out a second consecutive day of practice Wednesday, and Sarkisian called him “doubtful” for Saturday’s game against Syracuse. True freshman Jesse Callier, who broke off a 39-yard run on his first carry last week, will see extended action as Chris Polk’s primary backup. … Cornerback Anthony Boyles and safety Taz Stevenson took a few snaps at wide receiver with the scout team Wednesday, but Sarkisian would not comment on whether the team plans to use them on offense in games. … Among the onlookers at Wednesday’s practice was UW alumnus and former Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora. Sarkisian and Mora spoke at length after the practice.