2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

Digital Edition

Blue & Gold Illustrated: 2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

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Page 83 of 163

82 ✦ BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 2020 FOOTBALL PREVIEW BY LOU SOMOGYI S ince receiving his undergraduate degree in political science from Vanderbilt University in 2004, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea has not had a "senior year" in his 15-year coaching career that began as a graduate as- sistant at UCLA in 2006 … until now. Now that he is in his fourth year at Notre Dame, there is a popular notion he is ready to "graduate" after the 2020 campaign to begin his inevitable and destined journey as a head coach. Pragmatic as ever, Lea's concentration re- mains on the here and now. "This is the longest I've been anywhere as a coach," Lea said during a Zoom interview this spring. "What a lucky break for me to have that, to say that about a place like Notre Dame." Hired as Notre Dame's linebackers coach in 2017 following a 4-8 Fighting Irish implo- sion in 2016, Lea was promoted to defensive coordinator the ensuing year. The man who had brought him aboard from their days at Wake Forest, defensive coordinator Mike Elko, left after just one season at Notre Dame — a much improved 10-3 outcome — to join Jimbo Fisher's staff at Texas A&M. In 2018, Lea became the 18th different Notre Dame coach to hold the defensive co- ordinator title since 1980, be it interim (as it was in 2016 after Brian VanGorder was fired following a 1-3 start) or as co-coordinators, which is what transpired in head coach Char- lie Weis' final season in 2009 with Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta. That means the life span of a Fighting Irish coordinator through four decades has been about 2.1 years, although head coach Brian Kelly already has had one who went through his senior season — Bob Diaco (2010-13) — before becoming the head coach at Connecti- cut, a gig that lasted only three years. Making His Bones With Lea suddenly the greenhorn coor- dinator, Notre Dame continued to advance significantly on defense to finish No. 16 in ef- ficiency on that side of the ball in 2018 while advancing to the College Football Playoff. Last year it improved to No. 5 in the Fre- meau Efficiency Index during an 11-2 cam- paign. Also, 2018-19 marked the first time since 2001-02 Notre Dame has permitted less than 20 points per contest for the year in back-to- back seasons (18.2 in 2018 and 17.9 in 2019). There has been consistency across the board at all three levels — line, linebackers, sec- ondary — including ranking among the top five nationally in pass efficiency defense last season and fourth in turnovers forced (28). "There's always room until you're No. 1 in every category to improve," Lea replied of the defense's evolution since finishing 65th, 58th and 54th in efficiency from 2014-16 prior to his arrival. Schemes or tactics can change, but effort and culture must remain constant. "The No. 1 thing we want to improve every year is just the effort level, swarming to the football," he said. "Good things happen when you play hard. We're always looking for an- other level in that respect." What Lea has wrought among the defen- sive players and staff is respect beyond the long-ago stereotypical old-school, my-way- or-highway approach. Communication methods for Lea lean far more toward the professorial category, with a foremost priority on personal relationships with players, followed by consistency to or- ganization and detail, and collaboration with everyone else on the staff. "He's great with his players," said senior Mike linebacker Drew White, who last year came out of nowhere to tie for the team lead in tackles (80), with classmate/rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who had also barely played his first two years. "He's not a SENIOR SERVICE Defensive coordinator Clark Lea is establishing himself as a rising star in his fourth year on the Irish staff DEFENSE OVERVIEW Lea's first two defensive units permitted less than 20 points per contest (18.2 and 17.9) — the first time Notre Dame achieved that in back-to-back seasons since 2001-02. PHOTO BY MIKE MILLER

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