Upon accepting a job on Chris Petersen’s coaching staff at the University of Washington in December 2013, Jimmy Lake needed to examine the Huskies’ roster only once to determine that he was inheriting something of a dilemma.
They were returning star cornerback Marcus Peters, and that was good. But other than that …
“We looked at who we had,” Lake said Monday, “and were like, ‘Whoa, we are woefully under-scholarshipped and under-manned.’ ”
So they signed seven defensive backs in their first recruiting class, knowing the secondary’s lack of depth would necessitate that a few of them would play as true freshmen in 2014. And they did. And there were growing pains. But those players are juniors now, and as the Huskies begin fall camp practices in preparation for the 2016 season, they do so with a group of defensive backs that qualifies as one of the deepest and most talented in the country.
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Or, at least, the deepest Lake has ever coached.
“I definitely made a difficult situation for (myself), because I’ve got to make sure everyone gets their reps and they’re happy,” said Lake, UW’s third-year defensive backs coach who is also in his first season with the title of co-defensive coordinator. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a great problem to have.”
It’s also a problem for the Huskies’ offense, which struggled to complete many passes during the first practice of fall camp on Monday morning.
First, redshirt freshman linebacker Jusstis Warren intercepted a pass thrown by quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels. Sophomore cornerback Jordan Miller picked off Carta-Samuels on the next play.
And Miller wasn’t done. He had the highlight of practice during a 7-on-7 period, leaping to defend a pass thrown by Jake Browning to receiver John Ross, ripping the ball away from Ross as the two came to the ground for his second interception of the day.
Oh, and junior cornerback Darren Gardenhire intercepted Browning later in the drill for the defense’s fourth pick of the morning.
Miller’s performance offers a fine illustration of UW’s depth. First-team All-Pac-12 defensive backs Sidney Jones and Budda Baker headline the Huskies’ secondary, and Gardenhire (who played more total snaps than anyone on the team last season) and senior Kevin King (who plays corner, nickel and represented UW at Pac-12 media days) are key cogs, too. Yet it was Miller who led the team in interceptions during spring practices, a feat that hints at how talented UW’s reserve defensive backs might be.
“I feel like we’re one of the deepest in the country,” said Baker, a junior safety from Bellevue who projects as a likely NFL draft pick next spring. “I feel like we have players — great ones, great twos, great threes, our whole DB squad.”
The Huskies allowed only 11 touchdown passes last season, and lost only one defensive back — starting strong safety Brian Clay — from a group that helped UW lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense. Third-year sophomore JoJo McIntosh, perhaps the biggest hitter in the UW secondary, figures to take over Clay’s starting spot, and junior Ezekiel Turner should be in that mix, too. Both played some last season.
“What we’ve got to make sure is, nobody gets complacent,” Lake said. “That’s my job as coach of these guys. And I don’t think you’ll see that. We’ve just got to keep working. Everything we did last year is not going to help us this year. We’ve got to make sure we are continually keeping that chip on our shoulder and trying to prove to everybody that we can be the best defense again.”
Lake said Baker, Jones, King and Miller were each instructed to gain weight when last season ended, and that each player made it happen. Baker looks bigger – he says he’s gained 18 pounds since December, up to 192 from 174 – which Lake hopes will make him sturdier and more likely to stay healthy.
“Working hard in the weight room, eating, getting my meals in, getting my snacks in,” Baker said of his weight-gaining effort. “(The UW) nutritionist helped a lot getting us snack packs for classes. I feel faster, bigger and stronger.”
That’s good news for a group that was already the team’s biggest strength.