For defensive lineman Benning Potoa’e, it came last year before the Colorado game, when Huskies defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake noticed he was two yards out of position and gave him an earful.
For cornerback Elijah Molden, it came during preparation for Oregon State, when Lake saw Molden set up wrong in the nickel defense and chewed him out.
For fellow cornerback Keith Taylor, it came during his recruiting trip, when he took note of Lake’s attention to detail and knew this guy was the real deal.
“He’s the smartest mastermind there is,” Taylor said. “He’s just the smartest coach.”
Just about anyone who has played defense for Washington has had a Jimmy Lake moment, when the seven-figure-earning coordinator demonstrated his near peerless understanding of the sport. An observation in the film room. A discovery midgame.
A teaching moment during practice — you name it.
For Lake, any one of those instances stems from a coaching philosophy summarized by a sign hanging in his office that reads “Give them something every day.”
It seems to be working.
In each of the past four seasons, Washington has led the Pac-12 in both points allowed and total defense. And in each of those seasons, Lake has been either the defensive coordinator or co-defensive coordinator alongside Pete Kwiatokowski.
He also has overseen the defensive backs since coming to Seattle, grooming back-end players such as Kevin King, Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, Byron Murphy and Taylor Rapp, all of whom were drafted in the first or second round over the past three years.
Such departures always seem to raise the question: How are the Huskies going to replicate their defensive dominance sans all those stars?
Yet, they always seem to do it. And the common denominator is Lake.
“I wish we could re-sign these guys to long-term contracts, but their eligibility is up or they leave early because they’re so talented,” Lake said. “But we’ve done this before. … Here we go again. There are a lot of new players that are in those key positions.”
Gone to the pros are Murphy and Rapp, along with linebacker and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Ben Burr-Kirven, defensive tackle Greg Gaines and defensive back Jordan Miller. Graduated are safety JoJo McIntosh, linebacker Tevis Bartlett and defensive linemen Shane Bowman and Jaylen Johnson.
Nine new starters are expected on the defensive side of the ball for UW, but history suggests there shouldn’t be much of a decline. Count Lake as a critical reason why.
“We call him genius,” said Molden. “A scary genius.”
Other programs have taken notice. Last January, rumors began circulating that Alabama was trying to lure him away. But on Feb. 1, Lake signed a three-year deal with UW that will bump his salary up to $1.4 million this year, $1.5 million next year and $1.7 million in 2021 — making him the highest-paid assistant coach in the conference.
Retaining Lake seemed like a no-brainer for head coach Chris Petersen and athletic director Jen Cohen, who have watched the Huskies’ “Death Row” defense guide them to three straight New Year’s Six bowl games. And the decision to stay seemed equally easy for Lake, who cited Petersen, Cohen, and the city of Seattle as reasons to continue on as a Husky.
Players say they didn’t really get caught up in the rumors circulating social media, but weren’t surprised Lake caught interest.
As defensive back Myles Bryant said: “I feel like every school in the country and the NFL, they should want him. He’s the best at what he does. It would be surprising if those rumors weren’t out there — that Alabama, Clemson or a top-tier NFL team didn’t want him.”
There are myriad factors that have helped Washington ascend to the gold standard of Pac-12 football over the years. Petersen’s recruiting ability. A general buy-in from the players. A discipline-before-flash mentality.
But the defense has been the anchor and Lake has been its visionary.
So expect more Jimmy moments to come. He tries to provide them every day, and his defenses have delivered every year.