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Lea looks to go out with a bang in final game(s) as Irish defensive coordinator

| Friday, January 1, 2021

Every sports fan loves a good homecoming. Perhaps it’s returning to the same place you once ruled the playground, as Lebron James did in 2014 when he made his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. For others, it’s about returning to a place that raised you in your adulthood like Dwyane Wade’s second stint in Miami.

For Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, his next move is a little of both. 

Growing up in Nashville, Tenn., Lea attended Montgomery Bell Academy where he was named to the 1999 All-State team for his role as a fullback in helping his school secure the Division II Class 2A championship. After graduating in 2000, Lea moved south to play baseball at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala., winning an NAIA championship as a freshman. He would transfer to Belmont as a sophomore to continue his career on the diamond, but Lea returned to the Music City as a junior and spent his last two seasons of eligibility at Vanderbilt, playing fullback under head coach Bobby Johnson.

Sixteen years and seven coaching stops later, Lea finds himself returning to Vanderbilt Stadium in his first head coaching assignment, but not before trying to stifle the dynamic offense of No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff Semifinal this Friday. 

”Obviously with an opponent like Alabama … every bit of my mental and emotional energy has got to be put into this game plan,” Lea said.

For Lea, that ability to focus on the task at hand is in part motivated by his own investment and connection he’s built with his players.

”I know that may be hard to believe, but this is too big. I mean, whatever is to come next for me will be there when this season’s finished,” he said. ”But this is a culmination of four years of investment for me. And it’s not just about me, obviously. It’s four years of investment with these players.”

That said, balancing the demands of two programs at once is no small task. In the days following Vanderbilt’s announcement of Lea as their next head coach, questions arose regarding the transition phase, with Notre Dame only days away from their first conference championship appearance. The 34-10 loss to Clemson did little to quell those skeptics. According to Lea, that game was less about lack of focus and moreso about lack of identity. He said at times it felt like players were trying to take on the responsibilities of the defense by themselves, rather than operating as a unit.

”I think what I want to point out is just, when guys function as one of 11, it streamlines their processing in snap,” he said. ”So I think, obviously, focus on execution, focus on being one of 11, focus on playing fast and physical, getting to our technique faster than the opponent is a part of it.”

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea instructs players during a practice this season. Since taking over as defensive coordinator, Lea’s Notre Dame teams have given up more than 17 points just 17 times — and they have ceded just 18.2 points per game — in 37 contests over the last three seasons.

Lea joined the Irish as the linebackers coach in 2017, following Mike Elko from Wake Forest. However, when Elko took the defensive coordinator job at Texas A&M the following year, Lea stepped up to fill his mentor’s shoes, now in his third season leading the defense.

He has helped lead the Irish to a 43-7 record over the past four seasons and coached several NFL stars, including Troy Pride Jr. and All-American Julian Love. With his time as a coordinator at Notre Dame coming to a close, he reflected on the development of some of his current players. He talked about the willingness of players to be coached as integral to their development, citing Butkus Award winner and first-team All-American linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

Owusu-Koramoah only made two appearance in his first two seasons before a breakout junior season. Now a senior, Lea said his off-the-field development as a student and leader catalyzed his on-the-field development.

”I think as he’s really flourished on this campus, that has absolutely transferred to his on-field performance,” Lea said. “And so it’s allowed him to reach for his potential as a player. And I still think that we’re continuing to push for that highest level for him. I’m excited for what his future holds. I’m excited for him to play on Friday. I know this is a big game for him, and he’s ready to go out there and compete at his highest level.”

Despite having a talented defensive unit, Lea knows he’ll have his hands full against this Alabama offense that boast two Heisman finalists and a dynamic running back that likely would be in consideration were it not for the competition within his own team. Lea said, as a coach, big players are made out of big moments, and that he’ll have to rely on some of those key players such as Owusu-Koramoah.

”When you look at big games like this, you need your best players to come out and play their best,” Lea said. ”And I know that’s what we’ve been pushing him for. And that’s been the message from Coach Kelly, and that will be fun to watch.”

Fun to watch. When the camera pans to Lea, it might be hard to believe he’s having fun. The stoic look he delivers while analyzing for defensive adjustments can be deceptive, especially underneath a mask, but Lea insists coaching is just that — fun.

”With every year, you have time to study in the offseason and you pore into new ways and creative ways to change the way we can diagnose, to change the way we recognize formation. … And that’s what makes this fun,” he said. “It’s what makes it an exciting line of work, is as a teacher, there is no such thing as a concept set in stone. It may be set in stone for a year, but someone somewhere is going to find a way to break that concept and you’re going to have to adapt it to stay relevant.”

No doubt big changes and adapting are in store for Clark Lea.

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