Washington's former defensive guru likes the hiring of Justin Wilcox and hopes he'll drop the soft, zone philosophy.

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As the years pass and the Washington defense rests, the appreciation of ol’ defensive guru Jim Lambright rises to near-heroic levels.

He is, after all, the last man to lead a dominant Husky defense. His 35-year run at UW as a player, assistant coach and head coach ended after the 1998 season, when athletic director Barbara Hedges fired him. Back then, many felt it was time to usher in a new era and remove Lambright from the shadow of Don James.

So, who would have guessed that, 14 years later, the Huskies would still be in need of the defensive might and insight that Lambright brought to the program for decades?

The Huskies have moved on, but they haven’t moved up, not defensively. For Lambright, that leads to an interesting dichotomy: These long-term issues on D magnify how great he was during his heyday, but while respect for the coach increases, it comes at the expense of the school he loves.

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Lambo will never be forgotten, but when will the Huskies remember how to play D?

“It makes it very uncomfortable for me,” the 69-year-old Lambright said. “I absolutely love the fact that people remember how successful we were. But this is my team. It’s tough to watch them struggle and watch a defensive philosophy being taken advantage of. You want them to succeed.”

Maybe this time they will succeed. Lambright hopes so. The Huskies hired a new defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, to replace Nick Holt last week.

Lambright likes Wilcox’s pedigree, which includes a successful stint at Boise State before he went to Tennessee, and says the new coach’s experience practicing against the Broncos’ new-age, explosive offense should prepare Wilcox for the high-tech offenses he will face in the Pac-12.

Get into a deep discussion with Lambright about defense, and he offers an intelligent and nuanced perspective. These are difficult times to rebuild a defense because offenses have discovered fresh methods to gain an advantage. But Lambright says that, historically, offenses always find new ways to get ahead of defenses, but defenses eventually catch up. He expects defenses to evolve soon and become better at stopping spread and no-huddle attacks that keep defenses from being able to react properly and disguise coverages effectively.

Easier said than executed, right? If you’re looking for encouragement, Lambright can recall one of the infamous and transformative games of his coaching career. It was Nov. 4, 1989 against Arizona State. In a 32-24 victory, the Sun Devils employed a shotgun formation and threw at will against the Huskies. After that game, James, Lambright and the defensive staff decided to revamp the defense. The Huskies wound up posting a 33-2 record in their next 35 games, including a 12-0 mark in 1991 that earned them a share of the national title. More than that, the run illuminated the defensive vigor and toughness and charisma that Husky fans love the most.

“We had to learn the hard way,” Lambright said.

Maybe these Huskies have learned a similar lesson. More than anything, Lambright says he wants to see Washington play a more aggressive style that doesn’t require so much soft zone coverage. That’s his challenge for Wilcox.

“He has to be able to change the system so that you have a lot more man-to-man type of coverage potential,” Lambright said. “The heavy zone philosophy with zone blitzing didn’t give us the numbers to stop them from throwing it outside or even inside effectively. We have to change the philosophy from a safe, zone philosophy to one that can create more pressure, and we have to be able to make the philosophy so that you can’t read it pre-snap.”

Sure, Lambright would love to see an influx of better talent. Good teams always attempt to upgrade. But more important to Lambright is that there’s a scheme that “gives the athletes tools to use so that they aren’t being taken advantage of.” He doesn’t believe in calling out players or coaches, but the results speak for themselves. And right now, the Huskies look like a child wearing a grownup’s jeans on defense.

There’s extreme room for growth.

“Coach Sark has been wonderful for this program, and he’s been wonderful to me, making me feel wanted when I’m around,” said Lambright, who works for Turner Construction, the company that is remodeling Husky Stadium. “It hasn’t always been that way with other coaching staffs, but these guys are wonderful. I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that it will work out on defense. I would do anything to help them.”

He’ll do anything for a defensive renaissance, even if it means his legacy moves to a lower shelf. It wouldn’t be so uncomfortable then because traditions are meant to be maintained, not lost.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @Jerry_Brewer

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