Notre Dame turned in a sterling performance on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball in yesterday’s 31-17 victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels. The defense was especially impressive against the explosive Tar Heel offense and further cemented itself as the best overall defense of the Brian Kelly era.
While it is quite clear the talent and depth the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have on defense, it is equally as clear how important Clark Lea is to the success of the defense on a weekly basis. During the lead up to the North Carolina game, many experts warned that Notre Dame was on upset alert due to the number of offensive weapons North Carolina possessed. After the first two offensive possessions that ended with two touchdowns, the experts seemed prophetic. Yet, the final seven possessions saw the Tar Heels muster a grand total of 3 points. At the end of the game North Carolina had 87 total rushing yards, finished 2/12 on 3rd down, averaged 2.4 yards per play after the first two drives of the day, and only possessed the ball for 24:56. The final stats should serve as notice to the rest of the country that this Irish defense is in fact for real and can play a large role in helping Notre Dame capture its first national championship since 1988.
However, yesterday’s result should not come as a surprise to many. Since Clark Lea assumed the defensive coordinator role in 2018, the Irish only suffered two blowout losses, 30-3 against Clemson in the College Football Playoff in 2018 and 45-14 against Michigan last year in a driving rainstorm. In fact, at this point in Lea’s tenure, a familiar routine has taken hold. The opposing offense typically has success on their first handful of possessions moving the ball. However, as the game transitions to the 2nd quarter, Lea and his staff make the necessary adjustments to slowly stifle the offense. By the 2nd half, the game script seems to follow as such: the Irish offense strings together long drives on the ground and the Irish defense forces quick possessions to get the ball back in the hands of the offense to continue to physically punish the opponent.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, programs around the country have undoubtedly been taking note of the Irish’s rising defensive coordinator. It was only last year that Lea was a reported finalist for the Boston College head coach position. With Brian Kelly’s contract set to run through 2024, it will be hard for administration to convince Lea to stick around until then, especially since there is no guarantee Kelly will retire at the end of the contract. Yet, if the Irish are serious about being an annual College Football Playoff contender, Jack Swarbrick and Brian Kelly should be willing to make Lea one of the highest paid defensive coordinators in the country to convince him to stick around through the duration of Kelly’s contract. This type of commitment should bolster Notre Dame’s ability to recruit as they can point to the fact that Lea will remain in South Bend for the next several years.
If Lea does choose to stay in South Bend, it would be imperative for Kelly to take him under his wing to school him in the finer points of being a head coach at an institution like Notre Dame. If Kelly stays beyond the 2024 season, Lea would surely look to move on to a head coaching position elsewhere. There would always be an option for Lea to return as head coach once Kelly decided to retire, a la Frank Leahy. If Kelly does decide the 2024 season will be his last and Lea remained in South Bend until then, he would be in perfect position to assume the head coaching role at the age of 42 years old. Some people may be worried that Lea could turn out to be the next Bob Davie considering their careers do have a similar trajectory. However, if Lea continues to turn out dominant defenses each year as he has thus far, I find this fear to be a bit unfounded.
No matter what unfolds over the coming months, it is obvious that Clark Lea is quickly making a name for himself as one of the hottest coaches in college football. With such uncertainty surrounding college football thanks to the effects of COVID-19, it is tough to predict if/where Lea will receive a head coaching offer this upcoming offseason. Hopefully, Notre Dame is able to put together a package to keep the rising star in South Bend for years to come.