2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

Digital Edition

Blue & Gold Illustrated: 2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

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Page 84 of 163

BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 2020 FOOTBALL PREVIEW ✦ 83 screamer, and I think that's a good thing be- cause a lot of players benefit from just being taught and sat down. "You can have tough conversations for sure, but he's not going to just scream and yell at you where you just really stop listening at that point." "He's very in tune with the needs of our players," Kelly said of Lea. "He's a great teacher. He communicates very well with 18- to 21-year-olds … but he can also be very consistent on what the expectations are." Finally, there is not a lone philosophical alignment he is married to, but rather build- ing a defense that best matches the available personnel and experience for a specific year. "Kind of the fun of college football is the discipline it requires as a coach — every year you re-set," Lea said. "You can make no as- sumptions about what you have and what you don't have. You have to allow these guys the opportunity to change and grow." Lea's position group at linebacker thrived with veteran linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te'von Coney in 2018, yet it also excelled in 2019 with newcomers Owusu-Koramoah and White, with their skill sets utilized to their strengths that were different. Last year he also employed more three- safety looks once the playmaking attributes of freshman Kyle Hamilton became evident early on. "He's such a football guy in the sense that he has knowledge at all three levels, and he's got a great staff around him that he'll lean on," Kelly summarized last season. "He un- derstands the way to put together that entire group." Dealing With The Present Thrive at Notre Dame the way Lea has and suitors will inevitably come calling. Boston College did this past winter for its vacated head coaching position before Ohio State co- defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley received the job offer over Lea. Another year of strong achievement at Notre Dame could well land a head coaching position that has been his aim since entering the profession. However, such an opportunity must likewise possess a certain appeal and not just be a dead end as it was for Diaco. "I'm not looking for a reason to leave where I am," Lea said. "I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined being at Notre Dame as a coach, much less be in a position to be a coordinator, much less being here for four years. "My family is happy here, I love working for Coach Kelly, so for me when those things come up and you take a look, I want to be fair to the goals I had when I set out on this career. But I'm not in a rush for that. It's about focus- ing on the moment right now, it's about how to best engage these guys while they're removed and we're in virtual interactions [throughout spring after the coronavirus pandemic]." Building on the momentum that has re- sulted in a 33-6 record the past three years is where his concentration remains. "When you work at a place like Notre Dame the responsibility you have to try to uphold this tradition is enough to keep you busy," Lea said. "If I focus that way, when the timing is right, the right opportunity will come. But until then this is what I want to do." That is especially the case with Kelly as his mentor. "I've always been kind of a tunnel-vision guy," Lea noted. "I can become very obsessed with 'Hey, I'm the linebacker coach.' I can spend hours on the technical aspects of play- ing linebacker or how do we better teach this. "As a coordinator, your scope becomes big- ger. This job was new to me and I had to learn on the run, and Coach Kelly helped me with that. … I know that if I handle what I'm doing those opportunities will come." Watching Kelly manage a support staff of more than 50 people and nearly 120 young men ranging in age from 18 to 22 has awed Lea, particularly during the pandemic in which the head coach took the lead at the uni- versity when it came to safety precautions and a realistic, measured outlook about the future. "The way he's handled this whole situa- tion from a communication aspect, how he's adapted and changed, the messages that he's put out, it's just strengthened our team even as we're apart," Lea said. "I'm proud to be working for him. I'm proud of the way he's handled it. All this comes down to how do we create the best en- vironment for the players. That's his singular focus. If you can be strengthened at a time where you have 120 people in different places, I'm proud to be associated with the way the university [handled it]." What he especially respects is the way Kelly was able to re-invent himself after the 2016 debacle and forge ahead with a clear plan. "The evolution that he's undergone here late in his career — if we can all apply that," Lea noted. "Take where I am now and add another 20 years. Am I going to be willing to keep looking at things from a fresh perspec- tive? That is a really great example of some- one who's humble and is continuing to strive toward excellence. "You have to enjoy who you're around, and if you don't then in some way you're cheating yourself and the experience, even as a coach. It's fun every day and I think the players feel that." It's the best way to avoid senioritis while continuing to inspire, and be inspired. ✦ A New Corner Market The lone new staff member on defense this season is 32-year-old cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens. He replaces Notre Dame icon Todd Lyght, who held the post from 2015- 19 before moving to California with family. Like Lyght at Notre Dame from 1987-90, Mickens was a two-time All-American (2007 and 2008) cornerback, where he lined up at Cincinnati under head coach Brian Kelly. Two areas where Mickens has developed a stellar repu - tation are in recruiting and the development of younger corners. This first occurred at Bowling Green State in 2014 under Dino Babers while winning a Mid-American Conference East title with two freshman corners playing prominent roles. Then last year for the 11-3 Cincinnati Bearcats, who finished No. 21 in the Associated Press poll, Mickens men - tored Ahmad Gardner, a Freshman All-American. At Notre Dame in 2020, six of the nine cornerbacks Mickens will be instructing will have four years of eligibility remaining, making his past track record of development among youth uplifting. "He's a chip-on-the-shoulder guy," Irish defensive coor - dinator Clark Lea said of Mickens. "… That's the mentality of our defense. We're not looking to be the flashiest, but play hard, tough — that's his mindset." Lea is eager to see Mickens' personality mesh with third-year safeties/pass defense coordinator Terry Joseph and "bleed into the unit." "Create a room that really models his personality and mindset," Lea said of what he wants to see from Mick - ens. "He's an incredible technical coach, had a really, really neat presentation on how he covers the specifics. He's a corners coach, so he has an expertise on details of that position." — Lou Somogyi First-year cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens was a two-time All-American at Cincinnati under head coach Brian Kelly from 2005-08. PHOTO BY MIKE MILLER

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