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This Guy Coaches Notre Dame Football: Clark Lea, Defensive Coordinator

Year three for a rising star

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Notre Dame Spring Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have a roster full of players and coaches, and we want to talk about them all. One Foot Down’s player profile series will take a look at every single one of them, and hopefully we all learn a little bit more about these guys, and Notre Dame’s chances for the upcoming 2020 season.

Clark Lea, DC

Now entering his third year as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, Clark Lea has risen quickly in the last few years from a relative unknown to one of the most respected defensive coordinators in the game. After a three-year playing career as a fullback for the Vanderbilt Commodores, Lea entered the coaching ranks in 2006 as a graduate assistant for the UCLA Bruins. He then spent two years (2007-08) as the linebackers coach for South Dakota State before returning to Pasadena to coach the Bruins linebackers for another three years. Two more linebackers coach stints (2012 with the Bowling Green Falcons and 2013-15 with the Syracuse Orange) later, he landed on Mike Elko’s Wake Forest Demon Deacons staff, again as the linebackers coach.

Elko was so impressed with Lea’s 2016 efforts that he brought him to Notre Dame to serve as his linebackers coach in 2017. Following that successful season, Elko entertained a bidding war that ended in him landing an absurd contract with the Texas A&M Aggies, leaving the Irish - who were thrilled to have a successful coordinator after the horrors of the BVG experiment - once again without a proven DC. However, Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick knew something we didn’t, and almost immediately offered Lea his old boss’ job.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Michigan at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Lea immediately set about proving Kelly and Swarbrick right, besting the LEGENDARY Don Brown and neutralizing the GAME-CHANGING TALENT Shea Patterson in a resounding win against the Michigan Wolverines in week one. It was a performance that set a precedent for the rest of the season. With leadership from Jerry Tillery, Te’von Coney, Drue Tranquill and Julian Love, the 2018 Irish played sound, bend-don’t break team defense that consistently stifled their opponents. Their efforts formed the backbone of an undefeated regular season before they ran into an unstoppable buzz-saw in the Clemson Tigers. The Irish defense ranked #4 in defensive S&P+ and 17th in marginal efficiency allowed at the end of the regular season.

In 2019, Lea showed he could continue getting the most out of his players, turning formerly marginal contributors like Asmar Bilal, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and Drew White into reliable impact players. The 2019 Irish specialized in smothering the pass through a nasty pass rush and a veteran secondary, ranking third in the nation in passing yards allowed per attempt and second in touchdown passes allowed. Outside of an abominable night in Ann Arbor, the Irish consistently held opponents in check and ranked 19th overall in both total defense and defensive S&P+. Four players from this defense - Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, Alohi Gilman and Troy Pride - were taken in the NFL draft, a testament to Lea’s ability to develop talent.

Schematically, Lea’s defense is a variant of that developed by his predecessor, Mike Elko, a 4-2-5 alignment focused on team defense, disguising pressures and coverages to create confusion, and limiting big plays.

Spirit Animal

Nick Fury

The gloriously bald, no-nonsense genius behind the heroics, Nick Fury maps perfectly to Clark Lea’s role for the Irish. Throughout the Marvel film franchise, Fury excels at bringing together talented individuals and getting them to become even more than the sum of their parts. Like Samuel L. Jackson’s stoic super-coach, you can count on Lea to provide strategy, motivation and stern but encouraging leadership.

2020 Outlook

Once again, Lea faces the task of replacing key contributors up and down the defensive roster in 2020. Thankfully, experienced talent returns across the defensive line, with four seniors in starting slots. In the linebacking corps, Owusu-Koramoah and White return, with a bevy of talented and experienced players including Jordan Genmark Heath, Jack Lamb, and Shayne Simon vying for the Buck spot.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Notre Dame Spring Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The true challenge is in the secondary, which lost three impact players to the draft last year. Kyle Hamilton, likely Notre Dame’s most talented player, returns to anchor the back end. Isaiah Pryor and Houston Griffith - two gifted athletes who have yet to prove themselves at the college level - are competing for the other safety spot. Tariq Bracy and Shaun Crawford will likely be starting on the corners; the former has shown promise but also room for growth, while the latter is a stalwart, but injury-prone veteran.

Although there are questions to be answered, Lea has shown year after year that he has an uncanny knack for finding the best ways to utilize his players. I wouldn’t bet against him putting out another strong unit and sending a few more players to the league when things are all wrapped up. Unfortunately, another such effort may result in him getting some head coaching offers he can’t refuse, and the Irish should be prepared to pay handsomely to retain his services.