The defensive back starters’ blend of experience and talent is a primary reason why many are projecting a breakthrough season for Washington.

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Beautiful day, it was, when Jimmy Lake took his first steps toward constructing one of college football’s best defensive secondaries. Ideal day, actually, for a stroll around the Factoria neighborhood that was home to one of the nation’s most coveted safeties.

It was January 2014, and Lake was in his first week as Washington’s new defensive backs coach, having followed Chris Petersen from Boise State. With national signing day just a few weeks away, Petersen and his staff had to have a sense of urgency to assemble a respectable recruiting class with so little time to do so.

In meeting the Huskies’ No. 1 recruiting target, Lake didn’t want to add to the pressure Budda Baker had already been feeling about his looming decision. But Lake did want to lay out his vision for what the Huskies’ defense could look like with the Bellevue High School star in it.

“The way we recruit,” Lake said, “it’s not like we’re trying to sell a vacuum cleaner and we’re knocking on the door over and over and bugging people. It goes back to establishing relationships.”

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So the recruiter and the recruit walked and they talked.

“He was a real genuine guy. You can tell if someone’s genuine or if they’re faking it,” Baker said. “He told me his background, which was cool. I just liked him a lot.”

Petersen had been introduced as UW’s new head coach on Dec. 9, 2013. Just 11 days later, Baker, the state’s top recruit, announced his verbal commitment … to Oregon.

Once Lake and the rest of UW’s new coaching staff arrived in Seattle in early January, they set in motion their plan to keep Baker home.

“Even to this day, the urgency that we had to get Budda Baker, we call it The Budda Effect,” Lake said.

Baker had had his heart set on playing in the Pac-12, but he had enjoyed his earlier conversations with Petersen when the head coach was at Boise State. So when Petersen came to UW, Baker wanted to give the new coaches “a chance” to make their pitch.

“There’s no question, we were very intense on him because we really felt, after talking to his coaches and getting to know him a little bit — we felt passionately that this is where he should be,” Petersen said earlier this month. “From his family situation, to growing up in Bellevue, we just felt like — I always feel like in the recruiting process, when you feel like a guy really fits you, that’s when we were all in.”

Lake was inheriting a secondary that lost three of four starters from the 2013 season, and he scoured the West Coast hunting for any available defensive backs.

He wound up signing seven of them just four weeks after formally joining the UW staff. Of those seven, five remain on the roster and four are expected to start for the 14th-ranked Huskies in their Sept. 3 season opener against Rutgers. Baker and cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Darren Gardenhire were vital cogs in a defense that allowed just 11 passing touchdowns last season, fewest by any defense in the Pac-12 since Pete Carroll’s USC defense in 2008.

Jojo McIntosh, another 2014 signee, joins those three in his first season as a full-time starter at rover. Kevin King, one of the team’s three defensive backs who came to UW during Steve Sarkisian’s tenure, is the lone senior starter in the Huskies’ nickel defense, which they employed about 75 percent of the time last season.

Their blend of experience and talent is a primary reason why many are projecting a breakthrough season for Washington. Add in 10 other scholarship defensive backs, and the Huskies have the most depth at one position that Lake has ever coached.

“We’re striving for greatness. We want to be the best in the country,” Lake said. “And they’ve done a great job of buying in. We have a lot of fun in that room. It makes it easy to come to meetings and come to practice every day.”

For all the success the Huskies had on defense last year — leading the Pac-12 in fewest yards allowed and fewest points scored — the one figure they point to is their 7-6 record. Not good enough, they say.

“We’ve had some success — not as much success as we’ve wanted, and so now you can really feel around the building how hungry these guys are,” Lake said. “We all are, from coaches to players — we cannot wait to go out there and play. It should be a fun and exciting year. There’s still going to be a lot of challenges — no one’s going to give us anything — but it definitely feels better now than where it was and where it has been.

“And no one thought, when you first come in that it’s going to be all rosy. But it definitely feels good where we are right now. It feels like where we should be in terms of the culture and the climate in the building right now.”

They form a close, loose group, these defensive backs. They’re focused when they should be. They’re goofy when it’s appropriate. They compete nonstop, at just about everything.

“We have no egos in the room,” King said. “We have that camaraderie as a DB unit to where we can all tell each other the same things and have the same respect from each other. When you have that kind of chemistry, the sky is the limit for a unit like that.”

Baker, a freshman All-American two years ago and a preseason All-American this year, sets the pace for not only the defensive backs but usually — always, if you ask him — for the entire team. He has tested as one of the five fastest UW players in a 40-yard dash, and he takes pride in finishing first in every sprint during practice and conditioning. He’s never lost (just ask him) and never will (just ask him).

So who is the fastest in the room? He smiles. “Budda.”

Best hands? No hesitation: “Budda.”

Best coverage footwork: Short pause. “Again, I would say myself. Kevin’s pretty good at that as well.”

Best interception the past two seasons? “I’m trying to think … yep, it was me. One hand” vs. Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl.

All this, of course, is up for debate, except for the “quirkiest” category. Gardenhire is in a class of his own there. Fellow defensive backs voted “G-Man” the most likely to succeed at disrupting a position meeting with an inside joke, and he often causes the room to break out in laughter.

Jones is the studious one. He’s a straight-A student and tends to spend so much time watching film with Lake that teammates have dubbed him “Sidney Lake,” as if he was the coach’s son. The extra study has paid off, though: Jones, a 6-foot, 181-pound junior, is a potential first-round NFL draft pick. (He’s tough, too: He played one of his best games last season in the upset at USC — with one interception and one forced fumble — on a bum hamstring he pulled in practice a few days earlier.)

“His technique is close to flawless,” Lake said, “and he continually, almost to a fault, he breaks it down even more and wants to get better at it.”

Under Lake’s watch, King has transformed from a light-pole skinny into a 6-foot-3, 192-pound cornerback. His pterodactyl wingspan should help him translate well to the NFL next year.

“He’s such a savvy football player,” Lake said.

Lake is just as excited about the emerging depth. Veterans Brandon Beaver and Trevor Walker — don’t forget about them, Lake warned — are coming off knee surgeries and holding down the two backup jobs behind Baker and McIntosh. Joining them on the No. 2 defense are cornerbacks Jordan Miller, Austin Joyner and Byron Murphy, a touted true freshman from Scottsdale, Ariz., whose work ethic matches the hype.

“(While) some guys are thinking about Pokemon or whatever, he’ll shoot me a text at 9 o’clock at night asking about technique or a coverage,” Lake said. “That’s how pro players think.”

Another true freshman, Taylor Rapp out of Bellingham’s Sehome High, has impressed enough in fall camp that he will likely contribute this season, too. Given such depth, the Huskies have the luxury of potentially redshirting two other touted corners, Isaiah Gilchrist and Kentrell Love.

Lake had spent one season as the Huskies’ secondary coach in 2004 — long enough to learn the ripple effect that one blue-chip can have on a program. Back then, he was part of the UW staff desperate to land running back Jonathan Stewart out of Olympia’s Timberline High.

Stewart, instead, chose Oregon. He broke several school records there before becoming a first-round pick of the Carolina Panthers.

“So I think back to that and how we lost him, and that’s kind of when Oregon started to hit their stride,” Lake said. “I remember how big of a shift that was. … He was a once-in-a-10-year (or) 15-year recruit in this state. Just like Budda.”

In the first few weeks of his second stint at UW, Lake made an important connection with the state’s top recruit on their walk around Baker’s neighborhood. Soon after, Baker backed off his verbal commitment to the Ducks; and then about a week or so before signing day on Feb. 4, 2014, Baker called Lake with the news: He was going to play for the Huskies. (He asked Lake not to “tell a soul,” and Lake kept the secret.)

Staying close to his family was most important to Baker, but the chance to play for Petersen and Lake was an important factor, too. Considering all the stakes — where Baker was from, where he might have gone otherwise, and what he means to the team now — signing Budda Baker should be remembered as significant as any recruiting victory Petersen and Lake will ever have.

“I think now, looking back, he can see that everything (they pitched) is coming true,” said Lake, adding, “There’s no doubt it will go down as one of the biggest signings we’ve had just with (him being a) local, Washington player, and now that’s opened up the floodgates for all the local talent to stay here.”

The best Pac-12 defenses
The Huskies led the Pac-12 in total defense last season in conference games but were fourth in passing defense. They are expected to improve in that area this year. A look at the top five Pac-12 teams on defense last season:
Team Avg. yds allowed TDs allowed INT Avg. yards per pass Avg. passing yds allowed
Washington 351.8 26 15 6.9 226.5
Utah 366.8 33 22 7.0 258.2
Stanford 368.3 35 8 7.2 228.4
USC 400.8 42 14 8.0 251.5
UCLA 401.7 35 12 5.8 203.2