Because student-athletes are usually limited to a four or five-year window where they can compete for their university, there is a high level of turnover in college football. Since having players with truly great experience entering a season is a fleeting luxury, it sometimes helps to analyze just how experienced a team or a position group is heading into a new campaign. Furthermore, at a position like offensive line, where there are very few ways to statistically analyze individual production, sometimes experience and career starts can be weighted even heavier in the minds of fans.
So as the Huskies head into the 2020 season, they’ll be faced with the unenviable task of replacing three offensive linemen who are all earning a paycheck from an NFL team this fall, as Nick Harris is a backup center for the Cleveland Browns, and Trey Adams (Bills) and Jared Hilbers (Jags) are working on practice squads. No doubt, the Huskies will be young in the trenches. And with Jaxson Kirkland moving to left tackle and Luke Wattenberg sliding over to center, the Huskies will likely kickoff against Cal with all five positions on the offensive line being worked by someone making their first career start at that spot.
It raised the question in my mind: does experience on the offensive line in college football equate to more success in statistical areas heavily influenced by offensive line play?
Here’s a look at the Huskies’ starters along the offensive line over the last three seasons:
|9/1/2017||at Rutgers||W, 30-14||Adams||Sosebee||Shelton||Harris||McGary|
|9/16/2017||Fresno State||W, 48-16||Adams||Sosebee||Shelton||Harris||McGary|
|9/23/2017||at Colorado||W, 37-10||Adams||Sosebee||Shelton||Harris||McGary|
|9/30/2017||at Oregon State||W, 42-7||Adams||Sosebee||Shelton||Harris||McGary|
|10/14/2017||at Arizona State||L, 7-13||Adams||Sosebee||Shelton||Harris||McGary|
|10/28/2017||UCLA||W, 44-23||A. Kirkland||Sosebee||Shelton||Harris||McGary|
|11/4/2017||Oregon||W, 38-3||Wattenberg*||A. Kirkland||Shelton||Harris||McGary|
|11/10/2017||at Stanford||L, 22-30||Wattenberg*||A. Kirkland||Shelton||Harris||McGary|
|11/18/2017||Utah||W, 33-30||Wattenberg*||A. Kirkland||Shelton||Harris||McGary|
|11/25/2017||Washington State||W, 41-14||Wattenberg*||A. Kirkland||Shelton||Harris||McGary|
|12/30/2017||vs. Penn State||L, 28-35||Wattenberg*||A. Kirkland||Shelton||Harris||McGary|
|9/1/2018||vs. Auburn||L, 16-21||Hilbers||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|9/8/2018||North Dakota||W, 45-3||Hilbers||Wattenberg*||Sosebee||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|9/15/2018||at Utah||W, 21-7||Hilbers||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|9/22/2018||Arizona State||W, 27-20||Hilbers||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|9/29/2018||BYU||W, 35-7||Hilbers||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|10/6/2018||at UCLA||W, 31-24||Hilbers||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|10/13/2018||at Oregon||L, 27-30||Hilbers||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|10/20/2018||Colorado||W, 27-13||Hilbers||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|10/27/2018||at California||L, 10-12||Roberts||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|11/3/2018||Stanford||W, 27-23||Hilbers||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|11/17/2018||Oregon State||W, 42-23||Hilbers||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|11/23/2018||at Washington State||W, 28-15||Hilbers||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|11/30/2018||vs. Utah||W, 10-3||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|1/1/2019||vs. Ohio State||L, 23-28||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||McGary|
|8/31/2019||Eastern Washington||W, 47-14||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||Hilbers|
|9/7/2019||California||L, 19-20||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||Hilbers|
|9/14/2019||Hawaii||W, 52-20||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||Hilbers|
|9/21/2019||at BYU||W, 45-19||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||Hilbers|
|9/28/2019||USC||W, 28-14||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||Hilbers|
|10/5/2019||at Stanford||L, 13-23||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||Hilbers|
|10/12/2019||at Arizona||W, 51-27||Adams||Wattenberg*||Mele*||J. Kirkland*||Hilbers|
|10/19/2019||Oregon||L, 31-35||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||Hilbers|
|11/2/2019||Utah||L, 28-33||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||Hilbers|
|11/8/2019||at Oregon State||W, 19-7||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||Hilbers|
|11/23/2019||at Colorado||W, 20-14||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||J. Kirkland*||Hilbers|
|11/29/2019||Washington State||W, 31-13||Adams||Wattenberg*||Harris||Bainivalu*||Hilbers|
|12/21/2019||vs. Boise State||W, 38-7||Hilbers||Wattenberg*||Harris||Bainivalu*||Roberts|
As you can see, the Huskies head into the season with only four players who have starting experience on the offensive line:
Luke Wattenberg: 32 starts (27 at left guard, 5 at left tackle)
Jaxson Kirkland: 25 starts (all at right guard)
Henry Bainivalu: 2 starts (both at right guard against Washington State and Boise State)
Matteo Mele: 1 start (at center, at Arizona)
That means the Husky offensive line brings 60 career starts into the 2020 season. How does that compare with previous seasons? Going back to the start of the Steve Sarkisian era, here’s a chart laying out the returning starts the Husky o-line brought into every season, along with the sacks they allowed that season, their efficiency in the run game with yards per carry, and the offense’s overall scoring output, with the team’s record that season listed at the end. (National rankings courtesy cfbstats.com)
Obviously, there are a lot of factors that go into each of these statistics. The sacks allowed per game have to do not just with the offensive line’s experience, depth and quality, but also what percentage of snaps the quarterback drops back to pass, how adept he is at getting rid of the ball under duress, and how good the opposing defensive fronts are. The same multi-factor analysis would be needed to judge what led to a team’s yards per rush number and points scored per game.
Even within the statistic of career starts, there’s the question of how good were the players who got the starts, who were those starts against, and are the starts highly concentrated within one or two players, or are they spread out over a large number?
Take, for instance, the 2016 season. The Dawgs brought 62 career starts along the offensive line into the season, a number very comparable to this year’s 60. But the breakdown was spread out among several players, implying depth along the front.
That said, even though correlation does not equal causation, there aren’t even a whole lot of correlations between an experienced offensive line and positive offensive outcomes. Obviously, every coach, fan and even player would prefer to have the most in-game experience possible, but having more experience doesn’t guarantee more success, and lacking experience doesn’t doom anyone to more failure. In 2013, with a lot of experience, the Dawgs still gave up a lot of sacks. In 2011, with little experience, the offense still ranked Top 25 in points per game.
Given this, the only conclusion I can really draw based on this analysis of career starts is that experience alone is not a strong enough variable to determine if the Huskies will have greater success in the run game or protecting the quarterback, relative to the rest of the nation.
However, even though the Huskies had relatively little experience on the offensive line heading into the 2016 season when they went to the College Football Playoff, there does seem to be a correlation between having a lot of experience on the line (say, 95 career starts or more) and winning more games.
Here’s a list of the last 12 years from best winning percentage to worst, and you’ll notice that, with the exception of the 2016 season, the years with 90 starts on the offensive line or more were seasons with eight wins or more, where the seasons with less than 90 starts resulted in seven wins or fewer.
Again, as with all statistics, correlation does not equal causation, so the Huskies could end up unbeaten with a young offensive line, or could struggle with a veteran one. There are a ton of variables that go into this calculation, including the strength of the defense. But this does suggest that having a veteran offensive line offers a value, and that value is not insignificant. Hopefully, that’s a value that the Huskies will cash in on in 2021.
Head coach Jimmy Lake discussed his offensive line at length last night on The Jimmy Lake Show. (Make sure you subscribe to the GoHuskies Podcast so you can hear this show each week, because Jimmy is really fun to listen to on radio/podcast.) I asked him about the youth of his offensive line, but it didn’t dampen his enthusiasm about the group.
“Those guys have played some football, though,” Lake said. “Maybe they’re not returning starters, but we’ve got some guys that have played some ball around here. When you look at Vic Curne, Henry Bainivalu, obviously Luke Wattenberg. I mean, these guys have played a lot of football now. And the guys that are behind them and also mixing in with that group as well are guys that we feel extremely, extremely positive about. And we know they’re going to have some bright careers here. I’m excited about that group. Coach Huff has done a fabulous job of recruiting that position. They’re gelling together right now, and I can’t wait to unleash these guys on our opponents.”
Offensive line coach Scott Huff joined me on Husky Football Saturday and said, “I think we have 11 of our 15 scholarship guys that have only been in one or zero spring footballs. We didn’t get the big spring ball this year. And we had guys graduate early to try and do that. So you couple that with the pandemic and what that’s done to everybody and then just being a young group to begin with, and yeah, we’ve got a lot of work to do in a month.”
Damon Huard analyzed his projection of the 2020 offensive line on our Husky Football Saturday Show last week, which you can listen to below.
As I start to build out my spotting chart for the upcoming season, here’s a list of the information I’ll consider including for our potential starters along the offensive line.
Damon Huard’s 2020 starting offensive line projection was:
LT: Jaxson Kirkland (6’7″, 295 lbs, Jr., Portland, Ore., Jesuit H.S.)
- Dropped 28 lbs. in the offseason
- 4th year junior, 3-star recruit according to Rivals and 247Sports from Class of 2017
- 25 career starts
- Son of Husky legend Dean Kirkland, a 3-year starter from 1988-1990 and All-Pac 10 selection as a team captain in 1990
- Was named the John P. Angel Husky Lineman of the Year as a freshman in 2018
- Lake: he’s going to have to be able to play both inside and outside, he’s looked great in both the run game and pass game… could move back inside if injuries dictate
- Kirkland: decided to drop the weight after watching tape of last year and making move out to left tackle; feels so much quicker and faster; increased lateral movement to deal with quicker edge rushers
- Kirkland: modeled his leadership after Adams, Harris and McGary, who led him when he was younger… now trying to take young guys under his wing
- sees himself as more of a tackle with his height and body type
- Huff: great job at leading by example, coaching the guys up
- Huff: we recruited Kirkland to play tackle, but we got him on the field at guard as a freshman and sophomore because he was ready to play next to Hilbers and Adams
- Huard: the best player on the offensive line, and has been working on the left tackle jump since the end of last season
LG: #68 M.J. Ale (6’6″, 355 lbs, So., Tacoma, Wash., Fife H.S.)
- 3rd year sophomore, 3-star recruit according to Rivals and 247Sports from Class of 2018
- 13 career games, 0 career starts
- played every game during the 2019 season
- Lake: M.J. is one of those guys who “can move their feet like no other at that size” comparing him to Vita Vea.
- Lake jokes that he stands behind the offense during practice so he doesn’t have to run into Ale
- Lake: “He is a brick wall, and once he gets going, our opponents are going to have a huge challenge in front of them.”
- Huard: maybe the strongest Husky in the history of the program, or right there with Vita Vea… can run block exceptionally well… looks “lean and mean”
- has stood out to Jaxson Kirkland as a guy having a great camp
C: #76 Luke Wattenberg (6’5″, 300 lbs, Sr., Trabuco Canyon, Calif., JSerra Catholic)
- 5th year senior, 4-star recruit according to both Rivals and 247Sports from Class of 2016
- 32 career starts, 27 at left guard and 5 at left tackle
- named the lineman of the week in 2019 win against BYU
- High school teammates with Nick Harris, and started 25 games directly next to him while he played LG and Harris played C
- Credits his parents for his conditioning in offseason: dad bought him workout gear for the garage and they helped him stay on diet
- Huff: Luke fits the bill of center, has not done it in a game, but had been prepared to play some center when Nick Harris has been dinged up in the past
- Huard: he’s the veteran on this team and will be the leader at center
RG: #66 Henry Bainivalu (6’6″, 335 lbs, Jr., Sammamish, Wash., Skyline H.S.)
- 4th year junior, 4-star recruit according to Rivals and 247Sports from Class of 2017
- 24 career games, 2 career starts
- Played in all 14 games as a freshman, including the Rose Bowl, and played in 10 of 13 games as a sophomore
- 2 career starts at right guard in the 2019 Apple Cup and Las Vegas Bowl
- was the Lineman of the Game against Boise State
- Also played the majority of the Colorado game after Kirkland’s injury
- Frequently used as a third tackle in jumbo sets in 2019
- Huard: can play either right guard or right tackle, but should start at one of those positions
RT: #79 Victor Curne (6’3″, 330 lbs., So., Houston, Texas, Second Baptist)
- 3rd year sophomore, 3-star recruit according to Rivals and 247Sports from Class of 2018
- put on 17 lbs. since being listed at 313 lbs. on the spring roster
- 7 career games, no starts (played extensively against Boise State)
- Lake: really fits the traits we are looking for; he’s tough, loves football, extremely smart, can move around on the line, and is “really blooming right now.”
- Huard: another big powerful guy
- Jaxson Kirkland feels like he’s done a great job through camp
Next man up:
#78 Matteo Mele (6’5″, 300 lbs, So., Tucson, Ariz., Salpointe Catholic)
- started at Arizona in his hometown of Tucson in 2019
- also played 54 minutes vs. EWU when Nick Harris went down
- got a lot of reps with 1’s in practice last year when Harris was dinged up
- was recruited originally to play tackle
- Huff: “has that perfect offensive line body where he’s a 6’5″, 310-pound kid so you can play him at a lot of different spots”
Lake wrapped up his comments about the offensive line last night by saying, “I’m really excited about our offensive line. I think they’re going to be the strength of our team.”
Despite its youth, it’s a group that obviously has a huge upside. And given the fact that younger offensive lines have still experienced success in the recent past at the UW, there’s a lot to look forward to with this group in 2020 and beyond.
Additional notes: Here is how I determined the number of “returning starts” along the offensive line heading into a given season.