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Clark Lea: “I feel so fortunate to have my family around excellence every day.”

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The defensive coordinator chats about why Notre Dame is unique and hypes an early enrollee.

clark lea notre dame football
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea
Mike Miller/One Foot Down

Clark Lea is entering his third season with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish defense, and his second as the coordinator. On Sunday, the Nashville native talked with former Irish quarterback Joe Theismann about being happy, standout players and new buildings for football.

Theismann: “Joining us now is Clark Lea, the Bob Hinton defensive coordinator for the Fighting Irish of the Notre Dame football team and this season was the first season in that position that he held. And it was an unbelievable year — very unique situation for you great football team, great year. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, obviously, but different for you, Clark. You went from position coach and all of a sudden Brian [Kelly] says, ‘You know what? Why don’t you become the defensive coordinator?’ What was the adjustment like going from position coach to coordinator?”

Lea: “Well, I think in a big picture wise, you know, anytime you’re working, you know, through a process which I’m doing in my own career, you know, you’re always in the back of your mind preparing for the next step. And so, I think for me, so much of what I knew I was gonna execute upon in terms of the philosophy of defense, the structure of defense was set, you know. And so it became more about gaining what the relationship was like with the entire side of the ball. It’s like coaching a bigger position group, so managing that and in being what I needed to be for the other coaches on the staff in terms of organizationally and just keeping everything in line. Those were the main challenges. And, you know, it was taking a plunge into the deep end of the pool and part of the exercise was just staying afloat. But, you know, at the end of the day when you’re surrounded by good coaches, when you have a leader like Coach Kelly that’s kind of driving the ship forward, you know, it was set up to be successful. And, I mean, we did okay.”

Theismann: “How would you define your style of defense?”

Lea: “You know, we want to be aggressive. I mean aggressive, smart and we want to attack the football. I mean I think those three things: aggressive in the way we play. We want our players to be confident and the scheme to be well taught and so that they can go out and play the game at a high rate. You know we want to be smart schematically, put our guys in good positions, take away the opponent’s strengths. We also want our players to understand situational football. I mean, that’s another big part of it and then attack the football, obviously. You want to turn it over, get it back to our offense, let them score some points. That always helps.”

Theismann: “Believe me, as an offensive player, I totally understand that. You know it’s interesting. When you look at your football team, you talk about teaching and coaching. Four guys were drafted to the NFL on your defensive line. That’s gonna have to be an area where you’re gonna have to start looking for some young people and there’s been early enrollers. Are there some guys that have come in and looked like they’re gonna fit in very well or is it going to take a little time to get it to where you want it?”

Lea: “You know that it’s always hard to project, you know, a player that should still be in high school early enrolling and then all of a sudden, you know, he’s going against one of the best offensive lines in the country. But what we certainly have had some guys — and Jacob Lacey’s one in particular who who really had a nice spring and I think has set himself up to close the gap over the next three months and prepare to compete for a role on our defense in the fall. And so him, combined with some of the guys that were they were young in the roster this year, we’ll be able to be the best version of ourselves by the time we’re playing.”

Theismann: “This is your second year at the University of Notre Dame. We that have been a part of this family for so many years — me more than I want to state right now — and it’s just great being part of something so special at the University of Notre Dame. You’ve gone to different schools. You were at Wake. You were at UCLA, Bowling Green different environments that you had a chance to be part of and in coaching in. What makes Notre Dame so unique?”

Lea: “You know, it’s a great question and I think it’s one that we confront every day when we’re recruiting to the school.

“First of all, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else right now. I mean, I feel so fortunate to have my family around excellence every day. And, you know, my kids go to preschool on our campus and literally it’s a four minute walk from my door to their classroom. And when I pick them at times and bring them back to the office, we walk past the golden dome. And I mean it’s, you know, at this point in my life I’m soaking it all up.

“But, you know, I think one thing that’s that’s not really well understood at times is just how close-knit this community is. I mean, you can be walking on the street and pass our president or our provost in the weight room and you know these people are around our building all the time. And, you know, there’s true care and concern for each individual person — including the defensive coordinator at times which, I can be a popular guy and an unpopular guy.”

Theismann: “Depends on the week.”

Lea: “That’s right. But, you know, that part of the community is so vibrant. And then, you know, I get to coach what I consider to be the highest level performers and the most prideful people in the country. I mean, these guys are high achievers in the classroom, high achievers on the football field, I mean, coach’s mission for our program is to graduate champions and I think that that sets a standard that really is not matched across the country.”

Theismann: “Speaking of buildings — the new practice facility. Have you had a chance to get into it at all and look at it?”

Lea: “I haven’t only because I’ve been busy trying to —”

Theismann: “Are you anxious?”

Lea: “Oh yeah, absolutely. Everyday I feel — and they are working relentlessly — but every day I look over and it seems like another phase of its completed and then you know even passing it today the windows are off and it looks like it’s ready to be occupied almost so I’m excited.”

Theismann: “I thought when it first started going up, I though, ‘This is really a big building.’ I mean, this is going to be a great facility, a fantastic opportunity for our football players. And then, the more I came and the more I had a chance to see it, it just kept looking like it got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. I’m thinking, ‘Well, it’s just gonna be the football team in there but but that’s the way it should be — an opportunity to have a facility and then the old practice facility will be used by a lot different teams in the university.”

Lea: “That’s right and being in the climate that we’re in both, you know, with thunderstorms in the summer or obviously winter days when it gets late in the season — what an advantage for us to go and have a full length field to be able to occupy. And it’ll make our program better. But, like you said, freeing up the Loftus space will also help the other program.”

Theismann: “Coach, thank you so much.”

Lea: “Thank you.”