Irish promote Clark Lea to defensive coordinator, Mike Elston to associate head coach
Observer Sports Staff | Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Irish linebackers coach Clark Lea will be Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator, the program announced Tuesday. The program also announced that assistant head coach and defensive line coach Mike Elston will be promoted to associate head coach.
Both will also also remain in charge of their position groups.
Lea will replace Mike Elko, who spent one year in charge of the Irish defense, which improved as a unit from 62nd in the nation in points allowed in 2016 with Brian VanGorder and Greg Hudson to 31st in 2017. Elko left the Irish on Jan. 4 to take the same position at Texas A&M under new Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher.
Lea will be the fourth full-time Notre Dame defensive coordinator in the last six seasons, and the fifth counting Hudson’s interim stint after VanGorder’s firing.
“I cannot express how grateful I am to [University President] Fr. [John] Jenkins, [director of athletics] Jack Swarbrick and [head coach] Brian Kelly for their confidence in my ability to take on this new role,” Lea said in a press release. “I am indebted to them and to the student-athletes that I have been blessed to work with over the past year — without their commitment and belief in me, I realize that none of this would be possible. Notre Dame represents everything I want to be a part of in my career as an educator, and I am deeply humbled to be able to continue my work here.”
Like Elko, Lea arrived at Notre Dame last year from Wake Forest, also serving as linebackers coach under Elko and helping the 2016 Demon Deacons to a top-25 national ranking in points allowed. Prior to his time at Wake Forest, Lea had spent time as the linebackers coach at Syracuse, Bowling Green — where he also coached under Elko — and UCLA. As a player, he earned three letters in football for Vanderbilt and was a two-time member of the SEC All-Academic team.
“Clark has quickly established himself as a rising star in the coaching profession,” Kelly said in the release. “He immediately commands the respect of those around him, whether that be in a meeting room, on a practice field or in a prospective student-athlete’s living room. Clark has demonstrated an ability to motivate, lead, teach and mentor through a positive teaching environment, while also developing the necessary traits of excellence in our players. Clark has an incredible football knowledge, a keen understanding of personnel and a fierce work ethic, which leaves no doubt in my mind that we’ll maintain the defensive standard necessary to win at the highest level.”
Lea’s promotion will allow the Irish to continue to run the 4-2-5 scheme introduced by Elko with a coordinator familiar with the system. The system saw a move for Drue Tranquill from safety to “Rover” linebacker for the 2017 season, in which Tranquill posted career highs in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and passes defended.
Elston, on the other hand, had coached linebackers prior to Lea’s arrival. Last season was his first coaching the defensive line unit in three seasons, as he had previous headed the unit for the Irish for five seasons from 2010–2014. In his return to running the defensive line, the unit increased its sack total from three in 2016 to 16.5 this season and its tackle-for-loss total from 23.5 in 2016 to 38.5 this past year.
“I love the University of Notre Dame,” Elston said in a press release. “My family and I are blessed to be a part of this University. I want to thank Jack Swarbrick and Brian Kelly for this opportunity that continues my growth as a coach and offers a greater leadership role in the program. I’m very excited to stay with the defensive line and help them develop to their fullest potential — both on and off the field.”
“Mike has been instrumental to the success of Notre Dame football,” Kelly said. “His commitment and passion for this program and University are second to none. In many ways, Mike can best be described as the backbone of our coaching staff. … Mike’s also been a vital resource in recruiting — leading the efforts of that office for two years. He’s, without a doubt, a future head coach and we’re very, very fortunate to have him on our staff.”
The promotion of Lea may have some impact on the two Irish defensive players, juniors Jerry Tillery and Te’von Coney, who have still not revealed their decisions on whether to enter the 2018 NFL Draft or return to Notre Dame for their senior seasons. Tillery, a defensive lineman, led the Irish in sacks in 2017 with 4.5 while also recording nine tackles for loss, and Coney, a linebacker, led the team in tackles with 116 and in tackles for loss with 13, despite only starting seven games.