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3 Weeks Until Spring Ball, Husky OL Still Remains Big Mystery

The UW barely has enough scholarship bodies to fill out a pair of lines.
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Three weeks until the opening of University of Washington spring football practice, the Husky offensive line continues to be the great unknown.

New coach Jedd Fisch appears to have enough bodies at every position area to adequately make it through 15 April and May workouts — with the exception of the guys up front on offense.

A patchwork quilt has way more definition than identifying five guys who can provide a safe pocket for Mississippi State quarterback transfer Will Rogers to operate in and open some holes for Arizona transfer running back Jonah Coleman to run through.

Questions abound as the returning Huskies scramble to get ready for Fisch's first practice on April 2, especially with so few big guys on the roster and on campus.

With sophomore Landen Hatchett recovering from a December knee injury and ruled out of spring contact, who's the No. 1 center? For that matter, who's the back-up?

Will there be enough guys to fill out two offensive lines — with just six scholarship guys enrolled, plus three walk-ons available — or will somebody have to run with both groups at times?

With junior guard Gaard Memmelaar likewise recovering from a damaged knee and ruled out of spring contact, the Huskies currently have just one offensive lineman on the roster who's older than a redshirt freshman — sophomore tackle Drew Azzopardi, the San Diego State transfer.

This bare-bones OL situation, of course, is not news to Fisch, who's been on the job as the Husky leader for just 55 days.

"We have to find some offensive-line depth," Fisch said frankly in a KJR radio interview last week. "We have to find some starters in April. We know that."

If the Huskies had to trot out a starting five right now, with a bit of guesswork at center — a UW football spokesman professed even he doesn't know who might assume that role — it could look something like this:

LT — Drew Azzopardi

LG — Kahlee Tafai

C — Zach Henning

RG — Paki Finau

RT  — Soane Faasolo or Elishah Jackett

The 6-foot-7, 305-pound Azzopardi is the only one with starting experience, opening six games for San Diego State last fall, and he and the 6-foot-5, 292-pound Henning, a redshirt freshman who appeared in two UW games in his first season in the program, are the only ones with college game-day playing experience.  

Reinforcements naturally will be on the way at some point, with Fisch stating fairly emphatically last month that he intended to sign as many as four or five offensive linemen out of the transfer portal in May to make everything work.

The former Arizona coach already has flipped one of his December signees in 6-foot-8, 315-pound Justin "Moose" Hylkema from Santa Clara, California, but the kid with the great nickname may not arrive until June.

Jackett and Finau bring a lot of hype as touted 4-star offensive-line recruits from each of the past two Husky classes, but both are on the light side. On the UW roster, Jackett lists at 6-foot-7 and 259 pounds while Finau goes 6-foot-5 and 253, though the former from Orange, California, seemed to indicate he was closer to 275 when he was interviewed in the lead-up to the CFP national championship game in Houston.

"I just need to get bigger," Jackett said in January. "And get into the playbook."

The previous coaching staff wouldn't let former Husky center Parker Brailsford, who became a second-team All-Pac-12 selection last fall and is now at Alabama, enter a UW game until he reached 275 pounds, which still was considered small, for his second season in Montlake.

To the contrary, the 6-foot-5, 327-pound Tafai from Los Angeles said Kalen DeBoer's staff wanted him to lose 10-15 pounds before he would be ready to play. He recently was shown working hard in the Husky weight room in a social-media posting, fully aware he has a chance to play this fall.

"If you knew what I was thinking, you'd lose your mind," Tafai teased in his message.

When DeBoer took over two years ago, he and his coaches were faced with a similar position manpower shortage that was more manageable — they had no scholarship running backs available for spring football outside of then-New Mexico transfer Aaron Dumas, who took nearly all of the April snaps only to never play in a game in 2022 and transfer to UTEP. He currently appears to be out of football.

Besides the aforementioned seven UW linemen, the Huskies eventually will welcome 6-foot-5, 294-pound freshman signee Davit Boyajyan from Fresno, California, and 6-foot-3, 282-pound Michael Watkins, an Arizona flip from Glendale, Arizona, to campus.

The walk-on offensive linemen who will be needed to take a lot of reps and help the Huskies get through spring ball are 6-foot-4, 314-pound redshirt freshman Aiden Anderson from Olympia, Washington; 6-foot-2, 297-pound redshirt freshman Roice Cleeland from Vancouver, Washington; and 6-foot-2, 277-pound redshirt freshman Parker Cross from Seattle. Cleeland is the son of former Husky and NFL tight end Cam Cleeland, now a member of the UW radio broadcast crew. 

Fisch faced a similar situation when he took over at Arizona and had to hustle to find offensive linemen ready to play, and he didn't hesitate to use multiple true or redshirt freshmen as starters to get that program moving forward. 

Hylkema and Finau, if opportunistic, might find themselves breaking the No. 1 huddle on Saturdays before they ever attend a UW class,  

While the shortage of veteran offensive linemen in Montlake is alarming — with four former full- or part-time Husky starters in Julius Buelow (Mississippi), Nate Kalepo (Mississippi), Geirean Hatchett (Oklahoma) and Brailsford fleeing to the SEC — it will be interesting to see what Fisch comes up with for a starting offensive line for the August 31 season opener against Weber State.

His first Husky team offers no greater intrigue than it does with the big boys up front.

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