Elijah Molden had two fundamental reasons to return for his senior season.

Of course, Molden — a 2019 first-team All-Pac-12 performer and Walter Camp first-team preseason All-American — could have just as easily opted out, turning his focus instead to the NFL draft. He could have followed fellow Washington defensive standouts Levi Onwuzurike and Joe Tryon out the door. He could have prioritized a professional future, citing the rampant uncertainty surrounding the sport.

Instead, when the Pac-12 announced a seven-game fall football season last week, Molden tweeted, “See ya’ll Nov. 6.” And local media members actually saw him much sooner.

In a Zoom call following his team’s second fall practice Tuesday, Molden explained why he chose to remain on Montlake.

“From the very beginning when it was declared that we weren’t going to have a season, I think the name of the game was patience. And naturally, I’m not a very patient person,” he said. “So that was something that was difficult for me. But right now I think it was a very valuable lesson, just because you don’t know what the future’s going to look like. I don’t want to make an emotional decision, when I want to play football.

“Everyone like Levi, Joe — everyone who has opted out — had their own personal reasons, and I’ve heard from those guys. They have very valid reasons for opting out. But for me, I think I just love the game so much that I wouldn’t be able to sit out any longer knowing that I could have played. So that was my motivation for coming back. Especially with a new (head) coach in Coach (Jimmy) Lake, I believe in him entirely and I feel like it’s my last year at UW, but it’s his first (as head coach). I wanted to start him off on a good note.”

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So, the Cliff Notes: Molden returned because he 1) loves football, and 2) wanted to play for Lake.

Granted, that’s almost certainly an oversimplification. But Lake is happy to accept his decision either way.

“He’s obviously a player that could have left right after the bowl game last year,” Lake said in a Zoom call Tuesday. “That’s how talented he is and how much film he’s already put out there for the NFL scouts to pour over. He’s an extraordinary leader for us. I think he’s even learning more about himself and how much of a leader he is throughout this pandemic, and being around our team.

“Of all the plays he’s going to make on that field for us, which I know he’s going to do, he’s more important as a leader in that locker room for us. And I’m so glad that he decided to sign with Washington years ago and I’m so glad that he’s a Dawg and I’m excited to watch his senior year play out and then watch the rest of his career unfold at the highest level.”

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First: what about that senior season? As a junior and a first-time full-time starter at nickelback in 2019, Molden led the Huskies in tackles (79), pass breakups (13), interceptions (4) and forced fumbles (3), while adding 5.5 tackles for loss as well. He was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded slot cornerback nationwide.

The West Linn, Ore., product will be the centerpiece of a Husky defense that returns essentially its entire starting secondary (outside of Myles Bryant) — including corners Keith Taylor and Trent McDuffie and safeties Cameron Williams and Asa Turner, as well as veterans Brandon McKinney, Kyler Gordon, Dominique Hampton and Julius Irvin.

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When asked Tuesday to list the deepest position group on his team, Lake gave two answers: the inside linebackers and, of course, the defensive backs.

“We have everybody back (in the secondary), and we added some really talented players that also could be pushing at certain spots — if not on special teams, then in the back end,” said Lake, UW’s former defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.

Added Molden: “In every position group, I think we can be great — the best Washington defense we’ve had since I’ve been here, I believe. We’re pretty young in some areas, and especially with Levi and Joe leaving, it’s a good challenge. But I think we’re up for it.”

Of course, UW’s prospective defensive greatness is still contingent on Molden performing on the field and leading in the locker room. It hinges on his ability to keep his teammates accountable and focused in the most unprecedented offseason in college football history.

That, too, will be a substantial challenge. And Molden is up for it.

“At first every day was me trying to figure out (what was going to happen), me reading news headlines, me doing this and that to get the breaking news so I could know in my heart what I was going to do,” Molden said of his restlessness after the Pac-12 football season was postponed in August. “But the thing is, I can’t control any of that stuff, and a lot of what was happening would change every week. So the situation was really dynamic.

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“I really found peace once I realized that, listen, there’s nothing I can do. Going on Twitter, going on Instagram, isn’t going to help me. I’m just going to let God do his thing and I’m going to sit back and keep on working. This offseason I really just took it day by day and I think I had my most successful offseason.”

You heard that right: in an offseason without a padded practice, UW’s best defensive player found a way to improve.

“The good thing about the offseason is I feel like that’s where I go to work the hardest,” Molden said. “That’s where I grow as a player. And then when the season comes around all I have to do is show out and perform to the best of my abilities. I do know that this offseason I’ve improved the most.

“I think my freshman year I was terrible. My sophomore year I was a little better, still bad. And I feel like last year I was pretty good. I think this year I can be great.”