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‘It’s a dream come true for me’: Jimmy Lake’s competitiveness has Washington’s defense atop Pac-12 again

The Huskies’ co-defensive coordinator has been ultra-competitive his whole life. And it has helped mold a defense that has given up just 15.5 points per game.

LOS ANGELES — His laser pointer was forgotten back in Seattle, so Jimmy Lake has had to make do with his pointer finger during film-study sessions with his defensive backs the last few days.

Jordan Miller, Washington’s senior cornerback, laughed Saturday morning while recreating a scene.

There’s Lake, the Huskies’ co-defensive coordinator, standing in front of the room as usual, but without his trusted laser he’s had to walk up close to the screen and use a finger to point out specific details and corrections to be made. Of course, as he’s doing so, Lake ends up blocking the view of the screen to about half of the players in the room.

Miller strained his neck to one side to show how he’s had to watch film in meetings as the Huskies prepare for Tuesday’s Rose Bowl against Ohio State.

“It’s funny,” Miller said. “I’m over here trying to see over him like, ‘Get out of the way!’ ”

Laser or no laser, much of the success of Washington’s secondary is rooted in those film sessions. And it’s in those meetings that players see and feel the intense competitive nature that drives Lake and shapes a secondary that considers itself to be the best in college football.

Lake is meticulous about film study and expects the same of everyone in the room. Players say every mistake, every misstep, every missed tackle is called out and corrected in those meetings.

“We watch every play in practice, and he points at every player: ‘This is good, this is good, this is bad,’ ” Miller said.

That is the PG-rated version, anyway. Lake doesn’t hold back. “There’s no room for error,” Miller said.

He traced all that back to Lake’s competitive nature. Lake demands perfection of himself, and he demands it of his players.

That’s just how he’s always been.

‘He never let me win’

Lake’s fraternal twin brother knows that better than anyone.

At North Central High School in Spokane, Jayson Lake joined the wrestling team one winter in part so he could learn some new techniques to take down Jimmy and their two other brothers (Cory, the oldest, and Justin, the youngest) during the frequent and inevitable wrestling matches at home.

Except, Jimmy would come up with a new move of his own to one-up Jayson, even if that meant grabbing a chair from the dining room and chasing his brothers around the house with it.

Jimmy had to win. That’s just how it always was.

“I’ve been on the wrong side of that competitiveness my whole life,” Jayson said in a phone interview Saturday from his home in Tampa, Fla. “We were talking recently and thinking back to our swim team when we were 6 and 7 years old. Even in swimming, he was No. 1 all the time. He never let me win. I was always No. 2. The only time I got him was the one time he slipped coming out of the blocks. That was it.”

Jimmy’s competitive streak extends to everything in his life, even in the most mundane instances with his wife, Michele, and their three kids.

“If I meet her at a restaurant and I have to drive (separately), my youngest son always gets in the car and says: ‘I know you’re going to beat Momma home,’ ” Jimmy said. “I might make a lane change to get in front of her to get to the garage first, and I’ll talk trash that I made it home first.”

Jimmy and Jayson, now 42, were in eighth grade when their family settled in Spokane. Before that, the family had spent most of the boys’ first 12 years overseas — a few years in the Philippines, a few more in Turkey. Their father, Leon Lake, was in the Air Force, doing “secret stuff” that the boys never fully knew about, Jayson said. Leon passed away in 2000 from a heart condition.

Jayson credited their mother, Julie, for instilling discipline and focus in the boys. Jimmy has a need to be “over-prepared” in everything he does, Jayson said, which he said is a quality of his mother’s too.

Those traits, that laser-focus, drove Jimmy to be a straight-A student at North Central High — “I think he got one ‘B’ in high school,” Jayson said — and a standout in football and basketball. Jimmy went on to play safety at Eastern Washington, earning all-conference honors as a senior.

Through it all, there was one theme for Jimmy.

“Whatever it was, he does not like losing. No matter what we did, man,” Jayson said. “And I know that bleeds through to his coaching career.”

‘Perfect situation’

A year ago, when the likes of Alabama, Florida State and Texas A&M were making overtures to Jimmy Lake, Washington coach Chris Petersen and co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski got creative to keep Lake on Montlake.

Petersen awarded Lake a hefty raise, to $1.1 million annually, and Kwiatkowski voluntarily ceded play-calling duties.

The results?

Despite a bumpy road along the way — three losses by a combined 10 points — the Huskies won the Pac-12 for the second time in three years, and the defense led the conference in scoring for a fourth year in a row. The Huskies are allowing just 15.5 points per game, which in that regard makes this the program’s best defense since 1992 (which also allowed 15.5 points per game).

“It’s everything that I’ve been waiting for since I started coaching,” Lake said of his first season as the play-caller. “I love schematics and stopping offenses. It’s the reason I got into coaching; it’s a dream come true for me.”

He was quick to note the collaborative work of UW’s defensive staff — Kwiatkowski, Bob Gregory and Ikaika Malloe all have experience as coordinators and play-callers — and he wasn’t much interested three days before the Rose Bowl in parsing out of any changes he helped instigate on the defense.

“Definitely proud of our whole staff and the players, how they’ve been able to handle some new wrinkles, new calls,” he said. “Thankfully we do have a very veteran defense where we were able to add a lot of layers to our defense, a lot of checks maybe we would not have done in the past, few more personnel packages we weren’t able to do in the past.”

As for the future, well, Jimmy Lake’s name was circulated among various media reports for the Colorado head-coaching job earlier this month (that ultimately went to former Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker), and Jayson admitted his curiosity is piqued this time of year when those rumors start up again.

Jayson recalled a recent exchange between the four brothers regarding Jimmy’s career.

Maybe, they asked him, he could recruit better athletes at (School X)?

Nope, Jimmy told them, we already have those guys here.

Maybe, they thought, you’d have a better chance to win a national title at (School X).

Nope, Jimmy told them, we can do that at Washington.

Said Jayson: “I really believe he’s found the perfect situation right where he’s at.”

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