The sixth-highest paid state employee in Washington, North Central and Eastern Washington graduate Jimmy Lake, has had the luxury of avoiding Seattle’s gridlock traffic by taking his boat to work.
And he’s not even a head coach.
Not yet, anyway.
Lake, the Washington Huskies’ highly successful defensive coordinator, has been known to pull his vessel into the marina that edges Husky Stadium, one of the most picturesque settings in college football.
His alma mater will experience the same venue Saturday when EWU opens its season against the 13th-ranked and defending Pac-12 champions at noon in Montlake.
Lake, a safety at EWU in the late 1990s, has annually produced one of the country’s fiercest defenses, an effort that’s led to his $1.4 million salary, the highest of all Pac-12 assistant coaches.
He’s been on the radar of many big Division I athletic departments in the market for a head coach, but Lake’s feet have remained firmly planted in the Puget Sound area.
“He does a great job,” said EWU head coach Aaron Best, a former college teammate of Lake. “He’s a coach and student of the game. He overachieved as a player (at EWU) and he’s done the same thing as a coach.”
Five years ago, Lake, in his second game as the Huskies’ defensive play-caller, got lit up by FCS power EWU. UW edged the Eagles 59-52 in a shootout.
The Huskies, led by sixth-year head coach Chris Petersen, have grown substantially since then, the beginning of his tenure, and have established themselves as not only the Pac-12 North’s premier program, but a team that aims for the four-team College Football Playoff.
The Huskies have played in three straight New Year’s Six bowl games, including last year’s Rose Bowl and the 2016 playoff.
But EWU, ranked No. 3 in a recent FCS preseason coaches poll, has also maintained its mojo this decade, advancing to the 2018 FCS national title game.
Former EWU head coach Beau Baldwin became California’s offensive coordinator in late 2016, from pass-first Baldwin to run-first Best, but Lake expects the same tough, athletic squad under Best.
“The offense has changed, but what hasn’t changed is that they’re one of the best teams in America,” Lake said about EWU. “They’ve won championships, produced draft picks. We’re facing a team that was in the national title game last year.”
Lake, who called EWU’s decorated and experienced offensive line “road graters” praised Best’s physical, balanced offense.
Lake and Petersen, a UC Davis graduate, watched their colleges face off in last year’s FCS playoffs, betting a Starbucks coffee as the wager. Lake was the victor.
“(Best) was a leader (as a player), and now you see the same characteristics with his football team,” Lake said.
Washington co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski echoed Lake.
“Coach Best was a center when I was coaching there, and now his offensive line is tough and nasty like he was,” Kwiatkowski said.
Kwiatkowski was an assistant at EWU when Best and Lake were players, working under former Eagles head Mike Kramer in 1998 and ’99.
He and Lake are tasked with slowing down EWU junior quarterback Eric Barriere, a preseason Walter Payton Award candidate.
Barriere has drawn comparison’s to former EWU dual-threat star Vernon Adams, who passed for seven touchdowns against the Huskies in the 2014 thriller.
“(Barriere’s) a guy who stirs the drinks makes them go. Very athletic,” Kwiatkowski said. “If you can’t get a good pass rush, he can make you look stupid.”
The Huskies, despite the overwhelming size and depth disparity at most positions, know to not overlook EWU, a team UW paid $550,000 in guarantee game cash
EWU is a 21-point underdog.
“That’s a good team, it doesn’t matter if they’re FSC or whatever (FCS),” UW defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike said. “If they were in our conference, they would probably do some damage there. We’re treating them like any other team.”
Washington had eight players selected in the most recent NFL draft, decimating its secondary, now it’s most unproven position group.
The Huskies also lost the four-year starting combo of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin.
Jacob Eason, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound quarterback who started at Georgia as a true freshman in 2016, now runs the Huskies’ offense.
Eason’s receivers are being taught by first-year receivers coach Junior Adams, a former EWU assistant who played at Montana State in the early 2000s.
Adams, who coached in Cheney from 2009-2013, helped recruit and develop EWU stars and current NFL receivers Cooper Kupp (Los Angeles Rams) and Kendrick Bourne (San Francisco 49ers).
“There’s always like one degree of separation, it seems, in this coaching thing,” Petersen said of Adams. “We’ve known each other for a long time. He’s been a great addition. I think the guys really like him. He fits into our staff in an awesome way.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.