How secondary became the cornerstone of Washington's rebuilding project

Washington's secondary, led by Budda Baker, No. 32, and Sidney Jones, No. 26, went through growing pains but have developed into one of the nation's best units. Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

SEATTLE -- It’s nearly impossible to get through a day with the Washington defensive backs without a reference to Mr. Clean.

If it isn’t Mr. Clean, then it’s Montel Williams, Hip Hop Abs’ Shaun T or the rapper Common. When the guys get really desperate, they just resort to the crystal ball.

They’re all shots taken at the noticeably bald head of Washington defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake.

“We talk about his head a lot,” senior cornerback Kevin King said. “He be shining, he be glistening.”

This is the discourse that the Washington secondary has taken up over the past three years -- a light give-and-take between players and coach, one that represents their comfort level with one another on and off the field.

As quickly as Lake might get it from his players, he’ll dish it back out, and then the roast begins.

Someone will call out safety Budda Baker for being an Energizer Bunny.

“We could be done with conditioning,” cornerback Sidney Jones said, “and he has energy to wrestle somebody in the locker room.”

Then Jones will be roasted for being “Sidney Lake,” a reference to how he’s basically the coach’s son because of his clean technique and his tendency to be the first to ask a question. (Kind of a compliment at heart, but his teammates say it still gets under his skin.) Soon, Darren Gardenhire jumps in because he always has to talk, according to his teammates. Always. His teammates have taken to calling him “The Cheese Grater” because he’s always grating someone for something.

His favorite person to grate? JoJo McIntosh, the defensive back most likely to injure someone on the Washington team.

“Friendly fire,” Gardenhire said. “That’s JoJo, all the time on film. Every game he hits somebody on our team.”

“He’s the guy you don’t want to be in on the same tackle with,” Baker added. “He’ll hit you even if he’s on your team.”

Eventually King will step in, and order will be restored.

“He’s the pops of the room,” Gardenhire said.

King is the only senior starter in the secondary, the only holdover from the Steve Sarkisian era and the only one in the room who seems immune to the roast. He’s an old soul whose teammates defer to him for talking points on everything from the nickel formation to the Black Lives Matter movement to what they should eat for dinner.

He’s also the one with the most perspective. He had a year of college football and a whirlwind of a coaching search under his belt when Lake, Chris Petersen and their seven defensive back signees in the 2014 class -- four of whom start now -- arrived in Seattle.

King was in the meeting room when Lake told that young group of players that he expected them to be the best in the nation, and he was the only one bold enough to question the new coach’s plan.

“I kind of thought that’s everybody’s goal. Is that really attainable within us?” King said. “I asked him, ‘You really think we can do this? Because I understand everybody’s goal is to be the best.’ … I remember he looked at me confused, like, ‘Yes. Absolutely.’”

When Lake got to Washington, he wrote on the top of the grease board in the defensive backs' meeting room: "Goal: Be The Best."

The 2014 season fell far from that.

The unit needed to replace three starters from the 2013 team, and it lost the only returning starter in Marcus Peters when he was dismissed from the team in November. Lake’s typical rotation that season included seven freshmen and sophomores and just one junior. They ended the season as the conference’s third-worst pass defense in 2014, allowing 287 passing yards per game.

After that season, King called a players-only meeting.

He was fed up with the caveats that had been used to explain the unit's performances: how they had performed OK (for such a young group); how they had survived (given the coaching staff turnover); how they had fared well against elite quarterbacks (considering how inexperienced every player was). He was even more frustrated that he thought some of the players had accepted those as valid.

He knew there had been moments when they had shown how good they could be. Against Cal, when the Huskies held Jared Goff’s offense -- then ranked the second-best scoring offense in the country at 50 points per game -- to just seven points and no passing touchdowns, stood out as one such moment.

“That was the moment,” Lake said. “That was the game for me when I saw the light bulb turn on for these guys.”

But those moments had been surrounded by games when they had failed too often. He called out players for accepting excuses and he -- as the "veteran" in the room, even though he was just a sophomore -- demanded that they all now act as veterans (no matter that most of the players were just starting their second semester of college).

King knows that type of meeting isn't unique for a college program.

But he and his teammates know what has made them unique: The five defensive backs who start for the Huskies now were all in that meeting almost two years ago.

That cohesion is why they’ve gone from being one of the worst position groups in the Pac-12 in 2014 to one of the deepest and most talented in the country in 2016. In college football, with transfers and early departures, stud freshmen and season-ending injuries, there aren’t many units that can say that its core group of players has been together for three consecutive seasons.

“We’ve grown as a group over these past few years,” Jones said.

Group: That’s the key word.

King, Baker and Jones are three-year starters. Gardenhire, Jones’ backup in 2014, now starts. McIntosh, who signed in the 2014 class with Baker, Jones and Gardenhire, also starts. (Washington runs a nickel package 75 to 80 percent of the time.) And for going on three seasons, they’ve sat in the same meeting room, with the same players, the same coach.

At this point, there's an almost dancelike synchronicity about the five of them. Lake says the key is getting everyone on the same page. After three years together, they’re all on the same word of that same page.

The players define it as a sixth sense in knowing exactly where certain defensive backs will be not only because that’s where the playcall says a certain player should be, but also because he knows exactly how each is as a player because of the amount of time they’ve been together.

“That trust on the field, that’s what makes us good,” McIntosh said. “We can all trust each other.”

“We’ll see something and just look at each other and already know what we’re talking about,” King added. “That chemistry is there.”

At any time during any given practice, one -- or many -- of Lake’s defensive backs might stop and point a finger at a 45-degree angle toward the sky.

The move is indicative of something they’ve learned in their meeting room, where, at a 45-degree angle to their right, hangs a sign that reads: “No excuses. No explanations.”

Lake ordered the sign along with a few others (Compete. Compete. Compete. and Get the ball back or score.) from a shop on Washington’s campus when he arrived in Seattle that first winter. Like most college football coaches, he is no decorating savant, and the route he chose to go was simple -- inspirational signs that looked like billboards.

Like Lake and each of the defensive back starters now, those signs have sat in the meeting room from day one. They’ve witnessed the growing pains and the game planning. They’ve heard the questions of how to defend Oregon's Marcus Mariota in 2014 and how to defend Stanford's Ryan Burns this weekend. And they’ve seen the fun, the heckling, the roasts.

So when Lake pops in a week’s teach tape that might show a player competing (Compete. Compete. Compete.) or a player picking off a quarterback (Get the ball back or score.), it’s a surprise to nobody in the room that it’s mostly Jones on the film. It has been that way for a while.

“Damn, Lake,” Gardenhire will say. “This your kid’s highlights or something?”

“Sidney LAKE,” a few of the defensive backs will repeat.

It is both a burn and a compliment, and Jones knows that.

That joke and what it means are both reasons this defensive back unit is so strong -- the players know one another's skills completely, and they know one another's personalities completely. Three years in the same room together will do that to you.

And when Jones' skills are added to King's level head, Gardenhire's trash talk, Baker's energy and McIntosh's desire to hit (both opponents and his tendency for friendly fire), it makes for a entertaining group both on and off the field.

And at the end of the day, they can all agree on one thing -- it's all better than being Mr. Clean, right?

"I guess that’s a compliment to him," King said. "If you say a bald guy is glistening, I guess that’s a compliment? ... Hey, to each his own."

Spoken like a true pops.