UW’s trio of persevering offensive linemen will take a senior day curtain call against Colorado

Jackson Kirkland had something to say.

The consummate Husky just wasn’t sure what.

Between the third and fourth quarter of Washington football games, the team gathers at midfield for a speech. The players and coaches raise a “W” to the sky as a teammate — someone new each week — delivers a motivational message. The tradition, installed by coach Kalen DeBoer this season, also extends to the final period of every practice.

Trailing 31-27 at Oregon last Saturday, Kirkland’s time had come.

“I didn’t know I was up,” the sixth-year senior captain said Tuesday. “Coach (Ron McKeefery), our strength coach, found me. He was like, ‘Hey, fourth quarter speech.’

“It was just all improvised. It was all my emotions at the time. I was telling everyone, ‘After all we’ve been through, all the turmoil of last year, let’s get this win. We’ve got to do this for ourselves and for the fans and for everyone.’ And the ‘Say Who’ chant I know gets everyone going. It just reminded us that we’re those guys. We know how the chant goes. It was just a reminder of that.”

For the uninitiated, or expletive averse, “Say Who” — a chant held sacred inside the Husky locker room — goes something like this:

“Say who? (Say who?) Say what? (Say what?) Say who say Dawgs ain’t bad (expletives)?”

(The last word starts with a “mother,” and doesn’t end with a “trucker.”)

Kirkland shouted his swagger into the sky, and his teammates returned the favor.

Before the unforgettable fourth quarter of a 37-34 win, UW’s left guard lit a fuse.

“I was on cloud nine all weekend, and quite frankly still am,” Kirkland said four days later. “We’re all focused in on Colorado, and the Oregon game is a memory we’ll have forever. That’s in the past now.

“But I will say … that’s everything. Those are the games you play for, coming to the University of Washington. Growing up, I watched so many of those Husky teams play Oregon, and that’s always highlighted on our calendar. To have that standard back of being on top of Oregon, I really think it was a program-changing win and inspiring to past, present and future Huskies.”

Added sixth-year senior right guard Henry Bainivalu: “With the meaning of the game, the rivalry is so hostile. To go down there and be able to put on for the fans that traveled and made the effort to go out there, there’s nothing really like it.”

It wouldn’t have happened without an unlikely offensive line.

That group — which has surrendered just seven sacks, ranking third in the nation — consists of three senior starters: Kirkland, Bainivalu and center Corey Luciano. The 6-foot-7, 340-pound Kirkland famously declared for the 2022 NFL draft, only to withdraw after discovering an existing ankle injury that required surgery. He sat out the spring while recovering, then missed part of the preseason camp with a minor setback. The NCAA also prohibited him from playing in the season opener as a condition of his reinstatement.

After sitting out UW’s first three games with the aforementioned injury, the two-time first-team All-Pac-12 left tackle returned against Stanford … only to be asked to switch positions. Kirkland voluntarily slid to left guard to allow standout sophomore Troy Fautanu to fit more naturally at left tackle.

It was not the return Kirkland envisioned.

The reality has been even better.

“It couldn’t be more worth it. At all,” said Kirkland, the son of former UW offensive lineman and captain Dean Kirkland. “I said I wanted to come back and finish on my own terms. And with the help of amazing players on this team and an amazing staff, it’s happening. It couldn’t be a better script so far for a last year with Husky football.”

Bainivalu concurs. The 6-7, 307-pound senior from Sammamish was expected to retire last offseason, the unfortunate result of accumulating injuries. DeBoer admitted Monday that “Henry coming back caught me by surprise a little bit.”

And yet, the sixth-year senior has started all 10 games this season — extending a 28-game starting streak.

“It’s been immensely satisfying,” Bainivalu said with a wide smile this week. “Just to be a part of the success this team has had this year and the turnaround in just one season has been a great thing to see. It’s been a great feeling to have. We’re showing people what we can do and we’re raising the expectations — raising the bar — every week.”

Especially Luciano. The 6-4, 294-pounder transferred to UW from Diablo Valley College in 2019, then appeared in 22 games — with zero starts — over the next three seasons. He says, “I don’t think I was exactly ready until last year, to be ‘a guy’ per se.” I think I needed another year of development. This year’s been perfect for it.”

Two days after he communicated calls and captained a line that surrendered zero sacks inside Autzen Stadium, Luciano was named Pac-12 Offensive Lineman of the Week.

“There’s nobody that (crowd noise is) harder on than a center and a quarterback,” said UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb. “Corey had never functioned as the starting center in a game like that. We’ve played tough road games for sure, but the crowd noise can add a whole other level of complexity to making calls and things like that. He did a great job with that. I think he missed one call, really, that we saw. Other than that he played a really, really good football game.”

Added Luciano: “The crowd noise got tough a couple of times, when we were backed up with the student section behind us, and going into the student section at one point. It was tough, but it wasn’t just me communicating. It was the tackles alerting me to edge pressure. It was Jaxson (Kirkland) or Baini (Bainivalu) alerting me to something or giving me an extra hand. It was tough, but it was very, very, very satisfying to get out of there with a W.”

On Monday, DeBoer called Luciano “a Husky through and through.”

For UW’s senior trio, the same is true.

Kirkland, Bainivalu and Luciano — an admittedly unlikely interior tandem — will play their final home game when No. 15 Washington (8-2) hosts Colorado (1-9) on Saturday.

For three bad (expletives), it’s time for a curtain call.

“I mean, what better season could you ask for, turning it around after last year? It’s everything we wanted,” Kirkland said. “After going through the agony and turmoil last year, to turn it around the way we did, words can’t describe how we’re feeling. That was the testament to us sticking to what we know, and that’s the work.”

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