On the eve of Washington’s first preseason football practice in early August, the Huskies engaged in a seemingly mundane event that caused an outsized ruckus. They held a full-squad meeting in their team room, the program’s first since March 2020.
“Everyone was hooting and hollering, including myself,” coach Jimmy Lake related. “It does feel there’s a sense of normalcy. But also we have our guard up as well.”
Such is life in the age of COVID-19 – any semblance of normality comes with a side order of caution. Yet as Lake begins his second year as Huskies’ coach, with the season (so far) taking a much more familiar outline, it’s shaping up as a far more authentic test of his Washington tenure.
That’s not to say last year wasn’t a supreme test for every college coach, and a baptism under fire of mammoth proportions for a rookie head coach. But the set of challenges encountered in 2020 were unique, and, we can only hope, a one-off.
How did Lake do? He guided the Huskies to a 3-1 record in a season that never was allowed to achieve any sort of rhythm or flow. It didn’t get started until November, as the Pac-12 grappled for weeks with the question of whether to even play in 2020. And when they decided to forge ahead, the Huskies had their opener against Cal, as well as the Apple Cup against Washington State, called off because of COVID-19 outbreaks by their opponent.
The Huskies then experienced their own COVID crisis that caused them to pull out of their game against Oregon that would have decided the Pac-12 North title. That no-contest result perversely clinched the Pac-12 North title for the Huskies, but the COVID outbreak that sidelined their entire offensive line also caused them to pull out of the Pac-12 Championship Game against USC (replaced by Oregon) and a potential bowl game.
It was a decidedly unsatisfying ending to a convoluted season in which the Huskies never got a chance to fully display their talents – or Lake’s coaching chops. The highlight was a rousing, come-from-behind win over Utah in which UW overcame a 21-0 halftime deficit; the lowlight was a loss to Stanford in which the Huskies once again fell behind big at half (24-3) and had their second-half rally fall short.
Now Husky fans want to see how Lake does in a full season, without the week-to-week angst over player health or opponent availability (that’s the best-case scenario, anyway). In some ways, it’s as if this is Lake’s true inaugural season, and it dawns with high hopes, extreme potential, and the usual pockets of uncertainty that exist every year.
Lake certainly doesn’t back down from setting the bar high. When asked what were realistic annual expectations for the Husky program, he replied without hesitation, “We should be contending for the Pac-12 championship every single year. Every single year, we should be contending for the Pac-12 championship and going to a big bowl game. That is fair. Anything less than that is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable.”
And when pressed about whether the Huskies can think beyond the conference and strive for national-title contention in their best years, Lake said, “I think we’re there right now. We’re already there. We’ve won two of the last five Pac-12 championships. One of them, we went to the College Football Playoff; the other one, we won the Pac-12 championship and we weren’t invited.
“Unfortunately, the way it’s set up right now, we have no control over who gets into that final four (of the playoffs). We just have to go try to win our games, win the Pac-12 championship, and then see if the subjectivity of the voters sways in our favor.”
It’s a huge leap, of course, from the opener Saturday against Montana to a hypothetical spot in the playoffs. Whether the Huskies can make realistic advancement toward that goal will get a big reveal in Week 2 against Michigan, and again when they host Oregon on Nov. 6. But numerous other obstacles and roadblocks must be navigated.
Along the way, we’ll find out if Lake chose wisely when, for the second year in a row, he anointed Dylan Morris as the starting quarterback. And we’ll get a truer test of the efficacy of Lake’s hand-selected offensive coordinator, John Donovan, than was revealed in such a brief and disjointed 2020 season.
Lake earned his chops by developing stout defenses under his predecessor and mentor, Chris Petersen. The Huskies have the potential to have a dominating unit on that side of the ball, even without outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui, who tore an Achilles tendon in spring ball. Lake gave a tantalizingly optimistic appraisal of ZTF’s progress early in camp, vowing that he would play during the regular season. The Huskies’ prospects rise commensurate with the speed and success of his return.
This is a team with a deep reservoir of talent, much of it brought in under bountiful recruiting classes by Petersen. Lake, however, believes there is an X-factor within the Huskies that will make them greater than the sum of their parts.
“One of the anchors of our program is we’re bricklayers,” he said. “We are proud to be blue-collar, tough, hard-working bricklayers.”
The term Lake uses frequently is “uncommon unity” to describe their collective mindset.
“Most programs, most places, especially that I’ve been on, and most coaches that come here and maybe players that transfer here, teams aren’t as unified as we are,” Lake said. “We work at it every single day.
We don’t just talk about it. We live it every day, so it’s uncommon. Most teams are not unified.”
Of course, the long-term success of the Lake era will also be shaped by recruiting, and there is growing concern about de-commitments (four of them) from top recruits to the 2022 class.
But that’s not going to affect the fortunes of the 2021 Huskies. Indeed, this team’s success, or lack thereof, will undoubtedly influence the decisions of the next wave of high-school stars who are weighing their choices.
Lake has a grand vision of forging a self-perpetuating Husky powerhouse that will be a perennial force in the conference and beyond. And this year, we’ll get a much clearer picture of whether that’s a viable concept under this regime.