BY Todd Dybas 02:00PM 04/30/2012

Dybas: Huskies’ job: Protect Price at all costs

Keith Price took a beating last fall behind an injured, patchwork offensive line. With players missing, there wasn’t much sign of an uptick in the annual spring game Saturday.

Under the watch of coach Steve Sarkisian, Washington quarterback Keith Price did Saturday at the spring game what he had to do a lot last fall -- run from trouble. / Scott Eklund, Red Box Pictures

By midseason last year, Huskies fans wondered if Keith Price was going to get up.

Once he did, they wondered if he would go on.

Once he did, you wondered how much damage his knees suffered during his first spectacular year as Washington’s quarterback.

During several post-game sessions, Price limped in like he just took a crowbar to the kneecap.

He always smiled, said he was fine following the Saturday poundings, then staggered onto the elevator to go downstairs and bathe in ice. When he gimped in front of the media on Mondays, he said, and did, the same thing.

“Oh, I’m playing,” Price always answered about the coming Saturday.

He didn’t start one, at Oregon State, because of the bludgeoning. During the season, he actually swapped his knee brace from one leg to the other, and found the exchange humorous.

This fall, Washington has to figure out a way to keep him healthier or the joke will be on the Huskies.

Under last Wednesday morning’s unambitious rain, defensive end Josh Shirley zoomed toward Price. Price stepped up to elude Shirley, but then pivoted right and back inside. Linemen traffic piled up, resulting in the play being called a sack.

Head coach Steve Sarkisian chatted up Price right after.

“It’s just pocket presence,” Sarkisian said. “Obviously, our sack total was too high last year, and that’s for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons is Keith’s ability to understand how rushers are rushing.

“Josh is obviously a speed rusher, and he loves to come off the edge and rush wide. Part of that is understanding: ‘Where is my voided area that I can work the pocket to?’ Obviously, if you have a hard up-the-field rush, that voided area is back where you can slide into.”

Price didn’t. It’s a nitpick considering his bold numbers — 3,063 passing yards and 33 passing touchdowns, a school record — but a crucial adjustment. His health, without Chris Polk, hangs as the vital aspect of the fall. Making the improper decision in game situations last year cost him several blows.

More concerning, the current health of the offensive line doesn’t bode well for the future health of Price. It’s so damaged the Huskies were not able to put together two teams to face each other in Saturday’s spring game. It was simply the offense versus the defense.

The offensive line was dominated by the defense. Price spent most of the day scrambling.

“There are always concerns with the offensive line, even if they are 100 percent healthy,” Sarkisian said. “You’re one, two, three snaps away from guys going down. On that side of it, I feel good that these guys got so many reps this spring.

“Whether it was Mike Criste, (Siosifa) Tafunga before he got injured, James Atoe, Dexter Charles, Micah Hatchie, Ben Riva, a lot guys got a lot of reps that are valuable for them to learn from.”

Colin Tanigawa, who started 11 games at left guard before suffering an ACL injury last November, is expected back in the fall. Another former starter, Colin Porter, had to “retire” because of shoulder surgeries. A line that expected to return four starters, had just center Drew Schaefer in the same spot on the starting line as last season at the spring game. And, Schaefer was coming off a sprained knee that kept him out of several spring practices.

Saturday, redshirt sophomore Hatchie was at left tackle, taking on the massive task of replacing recently drafted Senio Kelemete. Redshirt freshman Dexter Charles was at left guard, in for dinged-up junior Erik Kohler. Redshirt sophomore James Atoe was at right guard and redshirt sophomore Ben Riva manned right tackle.

They didn’t play well.

“We never really had a full practice that was good all the way around for our offense,” wide receiver Kasen Williams said of the spring. “I think that’s one thing this off-season we have to work on, just being more consistent.

“(It) starts up front. At the same time, Keith was throwing balls that we got our hands on, but as receivers we have to make plays for him.”

Kohler, along with Schaefer and Tanigawa, if healthy, will max out the limited experience the offensive line has. They understand duty hierarchy.

“Keeping (Price) healthy is the No. 1 priority,” Kohler said. “We all know that.

“When Keith has his legs, you can’t catch up with him,” Kohler said. “He’s one of the best running quarterbacks in the Pac-12, if not in the nation. On top of that, he can pass the ball like no other.”

Washington allowed 27 sacks in Pac-12 play last season. Only Washington State gave up more. If the line isn’t able to sustain, Washington will have to start tucking in tight ends Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Michael Hartvigson. It will also have to play with a fullback more often. Neither option would optimize its scheme.

Though, Price himself is talented enough to counter some line breakdowns. Wednesday, he gently shuffled back as the pocket collapsed. He zinged a 20-yard completion off his back foot to Seferian-Jenkins, then waved his arms in a safe motion, metaphorically wiping away any pressure.

If it were only that easy.


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