This is the latest in a series examining the 15 most important assistant coaching hires of the 2018 season. Previous installments:
Who: Clark Lea, Notre Dame
Title: Defensive coordinator
Previous stop: Notre Dame linebackers coach (2017)
Why he’s important: Okay, so we’re breaking our own rule a little bit here, but with good reason. After losing Mike Elko to Texas A&M, Brian Kelly had his pick of the litter among prospective defensive coordinators and chose to promote Lea from linebackers coach to run his defense.
This means that Lea has gone from Wake Forest’s linebackers coach to Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator in the span of two years.
Yes, ball is ball, but in order of magnitude, the Notre Dame defensive coordinator gig is a lot bigger job than being Wake’s linebackers coach — especially when you consider this will be Lea’s first coordinating job at any level.
That’s not to say Lea isn’t ready for the spotlight, though. Far from it.
“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,” Kelly said upon Lea’s promotion. “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 linebackers became the first linebacking corps in school history to have four players post at least 75 tackles in a single season. The Irish’s ringleader is back in senior Te’Von Coney. Despite starting just seven games, Coney exploded under Lea’s direction, from 61 stops in 2016 to 116 in ’17 — the most by any Notre Dame defender since Manti Te’o in 2011.
After working with Elko at Bowling Green and Wake Forest, don’t expect Lea to make wholesale changes to a scheme that helped the Irish jump 30 spots in scoring defense and 20 spots in yards per play allowed while boosting their overall record from 4-8 to 10-3. But Notre Dame’s defense will be just different enough to get the players to hop on board even more than they already did.
“Clark is someone that articulates his message a little bit different than Mike did, and he’s very clear in his communication,” Kelly told the Indianapolis Star in April. “I think the best way I’d describe (Lea) is somebody who’s building a culture of accountability.
“For example, last year we would do up-downs after practice if we had some mistakes. We don’t do that anymore. There’s a sense of peer accountability that Clark likes to build within the unit that helps build pride in how they do their job. They’re gonna teach the same system, but how they get to that end is a little bit different based upon their philosophies.”
“Coach Lea sees everything,” defensive end Daelin Hayes added. “You don’t even realize, he’ll run over out of nowhere and be like, ‘Hey, good job on that last play,’ or, ‘Correct this or that.’ I love Coach Lea; I’m enjoying his coaching style.”