PASADENA, California — Ask a defensive back in the ballyhooed Washington Huskies secondary the key to their success, and two of the first words any of them said: Jimmy Lake.
Lake concludes his fifth season as Washington defensive backs coach and his first sharing defensive coordinator duties with Pete Kwiatkowski.
"It doesn't [feel like five years have passed since head coach Chris Petersen's staff arrived at Washington]," Lake said. "We're having such a good time, it's unbelievable we've been in the same place."
Having a good time and winning football games; that's the M.O. of Washington football in the Petersen era. The 2018 season concluded with the Huskies winning their second Pac-12 championship in three years, and earning the program's first berth in the Rose Bowl Game since the 2000 campaign.
Through league titles, a College Football Playoff berth, and three straight New Year's Six bowl bids, Washington's defense has been at the forefront. And at the forefront of the defense has been Lake.
Said safety Taylor Rapp: "It started years ago when coach Lake came here. He set the standard. It starts with him as a coach, to make it known for all the players to uphold what great Huskies have done in the past."
Cornerback Jojo McIntosh: "We've been so successful because of coach Lake. He knows the corner position, the safety position and the nickel position all very well, and he does a great job of making sure we're all honed in."
With Lake expanding his role beyond the defensive backs this season, his impact's been felt across the entire defense, reflected in the sentiment of All-American linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven.
Burr-Kirven called Lake's various position groups in his tenure at Washington "the best secondaries in the country." Producing such recent names as Budda Baker, Kevin King, Sidney Jones; and now Rapp, McIntosh, Jordan Miller, and Byron Murphy, it's tough to argue.
Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell had no reservations about lavishing praise on the Washington secondary.
"They're an NFL defense. They have NFL talent across the field," Campbell said. "And the way they scheme is like an NFL defense."
And with that NFL-caliber scheme — crafted in part with stint coaching defensive backs for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions — Lake's extended his expertise to the entire defense this season, elevating the Huskies to an elite level.
"Coach Lake has allowed me to become who I am," said Burr-Kirven, whose 165 tackles heading into the Rose Bowl Game led the nation. "He's one of the best coaches I've ever had. He's an extremely demanding coach, and he wants the best for you. That's why we've had such success: You have to play to the best of your ability, or you won't be on the field."
Washington having no shortage of talented players to plug into the defense helps to that end.
"It all goes back to recruiting," said Lake. "Our coaches have done a really good job pinpointing guys, and we've been able to sign them."
Lake's been integral in that facet. Not many programs have the luxury from going from a Baker to a Rapp at safety, but Rapp said Lake's recruiting has the Huskies poised to maintain their current, high level when the current class of players move on.
And then there's the in-game coaching, which Lake has had the opportunity to demonstrate this year.
"From the game plan part, there's nobody better," Burr-Kirven added. "He knows what offenses are going to try to do us, and he's going to put us in the best position to get it done. You can see that every year, our points per game (allowed) has gone down."
Washington heads into the Rose Bowl holding opponents to 15.5 points per game, down from 16.1 a season ago and a hair below the 2016 playoff team's final yield of 15.6.
As the Huskies' opponent point totals have gone down, Lake's stock has gone up. He was a rumored candidate for the vacancy within the conference at Colorado. And while CU ultimately hired Mel Tucker from Georgia, the talk around Lake as a young, exciting option is unlikely to slow in the future — although Huskies players hope that future isn't too immediate.
"He’s a really talented coach and I hope we can keep him at U-Dub for a little bit longer before he goes and gets a head coaching job," Burr-Kirven said.