SEATTLE — As a hefty high school football player, Dexter Charles was big enough and strong enough to overpower most opponents. Back then, technique never mattered very much.
But after becoming the starting left guard for the University of Washington last fall, Charles was no longer the biggest or the strongest player on the field. And as a redshirt freshman going against third-, fourth- and even fifth-year players, neither was he the most experienced.
Charles started the last 11 games for the Huskies in 2012, and along the way “he had his ups and downs, going against some really good players,” UW head coach Steve Sarkisian said.
For Charles, it was a lesson in the importance of technique. Because in battles along the line of scrimmage — football’s equivalent of trench warfare — footwork, balance and proper angles count as much for an offensive lineman as pure muscle.
“In high school, being the bigger guy, you can always just muscle people around,” said Charles, a 2011 graduate of Stanwood High School. “But when you start playing with guys who are all your size or bigger, you really have to know your fundamentals and techniques.”
At the end of last season, and despite being named the team’s offensive lineman of the year, Charles knew he needed to get better. He spent the summer taking classes at the university, and he devoted his off-hours to the weight room, building himself to a sturdy 290 pounds on a 6-foot-5 frame, and to the film room, where he studied for ways to improve.
The result is a player who should be a fixture on Washington’s offensive line for this season and two seasons to come.
“We have a good looking left guard for now and the future in Dexter,” Sarkisian said. “He’s an exceptional worker, and a really good, tough-minded kid. He likes getting after people when he can, especially in the run game. And with young offensive linemen, it’s a lot easier to go forward (for run blocking) than it is to go backwards (for pass blocking).
“He goes forward great, but he really worked this offseason learning how to go backwards and pass protect, but still keeping that physical mentality.”
With Washington’s 2013 season opener just four days away, “I definitely feel confident,” Charles said. “I feel like I’m a lot better and more prepared this season. I’ve been working all year on my technique, and I feel like I’ve definitely got a step up from last season.”
For Saturday’s opener against Boise State in newly renovated Husky Stadium, Charles will join a starting offensive line unit that includes left tackle Micah Hatchie, center Mike Criste, right guard Colin Tanigawa and right tackle Ben Riva. All are juniors except Charles, a sophomore.
“I feel we have the potential to be great (on the offensive line), I really do,” Charles said. “As long as we do everything like I know we can, we can be really good.
“And the confidence between all five of us playing together is important. Just trusting each other and being confident that the guy next to you is going to do what he’s supposed to do. So the confidence I feel is not just for myself, but for the guys around me.”
Sarkisian is beginning his fifth season as Washington’s head coach, and the progression of his program can be seen in many ways. Among them, the development of offensive linemen who have the tools and toughness to graduate to the National Football League.
Go back a decade or two and the Huskies sent an offensive lineman or two to the NFL almost every year. But in recent years that steady flow has slowed to a trickle, though with players such as Charles that trend could be about to change.
“I think his future is really, really bright as far as where his career can go,” Sarkisian said. “And he continues to work. He’s just a good guy who takes tough coaching and who wants to be great.”