SOUTH BEND — The last thing Brian Kelly wanted to take into an unexpected search for a defensive coordinator was a closed mind.
But the Notre Dame head football coach’s first instinct to stay in-house turned out to be the one he circled back to and went all in on Tuesday in promoting 36-year-old linebackers coach Clark Lea to replace one-and-done Mike Elko. Lea will also continue to coach the linebackers.
The desire for continuity not only prevailed, a year after seismic change originally and ironically brought Lea to Notre Dame, but it trumped the smudge on Lea’s résumé of zero coordinator experience.
Lea does bring stability to the 4-2-5 defensive scheme that Elko introduced last spring and the Irish players thrived in. And to recruiting, and to eliminating most of the potential headaches poaching an outsider could have brought to a team in 2018 that seems more equipped for a playoff run than the 2017 version that just finished 10-3 and 11th in both major polls.
A source told the Tribune that minus the promotion, Lea would have followed Elko to Texas A&M for similar reasons (monetary) that coaxed Elko to join new Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher’s staff last week.
“Clark has demonstrated an ability to motivate, lead, teach and mentor through a positive teaching environment, while also developing the necessary traits of excellence in our players,'' Kelly said Tuesday via prepared statement
“Clark has an incredible football knowledge, a keen understanding of personnel and a fierce work ethic, which leaves no doubt in my mind that we’ll maintain the defensive standard necessary to win at the highest level.”
That’s not to say there weren’t risks of elevating the former small college baseball player-turned-Vanderbilt fullback beyond Lea’s experience level.
Defensive line coach Mike Elston, the lone remaining Kelly assistant from his original Irish staff, has been passed over twice now in consecutive offseasons.
Elston did add the title, and likely some financial benefit from it, of assistant head coach five months ago. But a chance to lead his own defense — as he did adeptly on an interim basis in 2016 — could have been more alluring at this point in his career than being a loyal soldier.
Instead he re-upped as the associate head coach on Tuesday, a nuanced difference in responsibility with likely heavier direct deposits to his checking account. The significance of his decision to stay touches a multitude of areas within the program.
Returning to coaching the defensive line for the first season since 2013, Elston turned the position group, teeming with the most question marks going into 2017, into a strength last season.
The Michigan grad, who gets to face his alma mater in the 2018 season opener on Sept. 1, is also an elite recruiter, and was a stellar recruiting coordinator after Tony Alford left for Ohio State at the end of the 2015 recruiting cycle.
Elston ceded the recruiting coordinator title to special teams coach Brian Polian in August when he assumed the assistant head coaching duties. Yet he set the table for and did much of the follow-through for a class that sits No. 7 nationally per Rivals, with only three more spots to fill for the second signing period on Feb. 7.
It should be noted that in Elston’s eight-game run as interim defensive coordinator in 2016 after Brian VanGorder was deposed and Greg Hudson was rolled out as the ceremonial interim selection, his defense performed every bit as well relative to the opposition’s scoring and yardage averages that Elko’s did in a 13-game sample size this past season.
With Elston’s decision to stay, Lea and Kelly only have the task now of hiring a safeties coach.
It’s a critical hire, given the liability that position group was on a unit that finished 46th in total defense in 2017 and the potential for improvement through experience and key additions such as Navy transfer Alohi Gilman and plug-and-play recruits Derrik Allen and Houston Griffith.
Given Lea’s organization skills and connections, that isn’t expected to be a protracted process.
Had Kelly chosen the alternative of going outside for Elko’s replacement, he faced a Rubik’s Cube of sorts in trying to offset long-term benefit with short term fit — that is, if he didn’t want a larger staff makeover, which he decidedly did not.
A look at the coordinators of the nation’s top 10 defenses in 2017 provides a sample of what the candidate pool might have looked like.
Though not connected directly to Kelly’s thought process individually, it still sheds some light on just why importing a coordinator had the potential to be so complicated. Incidentally, the coaching carousel has already moved four of those 10.
The two teams that played for the national title Monday night, Georgia and champ Alabama, and three others in the top 10, for instance, ran 3-4 defenses.
That would have been a jolt schematically to ND’s existing personnel and almost-completed recruiting class. Another challenge, of the 10 defensive coordinators, only two coach safeties (Ohio State’s Greg Schiano and Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard).
If Kelly brought in someone who didn’t coach safeties, then he would be back to Todd Lyght having to coach that position group and the cornerbacks a year after extolling how beneficial a departure from that was for the defense.
Kelly would also need that person to be Elko’s peer as a closer and grinder on the recruiting trail as well as a top-level evaluator. It appears that Lea satisfies those prerequisites as well.
“I think Clark, beyond being an excellent coach, has a personality that fits Notre Dame,” said 247sports director of recruiting Steve Wiltfong. “It’s so easy for him to believe in Notre Dame, and then he can take that excitement to the recruiting trail and win recruiting battles for Notre Dame type of kids.
“He’s really good at being able to build relationships with kids. His strength is talking to kids about how he’s going to develop them. He’s got a tremendous mind for the game, and he’s able to communicate that on a high school level.
“As a coach, he’s a tremendous educator and communicator, and that translates very well to the recruiting trail. Kids understand what he’s saying, and it makes them comfortable with the idea of playing for him.”
California four-star linebacker Jack Lamb in the current class is a player Wiltfong said would likely have gone to UCLA if not for Lea. Tennessee defensive lineman Joseph Anderson and Virginia defensive back Litchfield Ajavon are two 2019 class standouts with whom Lea has already made strong inroads.
“I know the current players on the team love him,” Wiltfong said. “I guarantee Te’von Coney doesn’t make the huge improvement he made at linebacker this year without the trust he put in Clark Lea.”
Coney and starting nose guard Jerry Tillery are two key pieces that could aid Kelly’s quest for continuity. Both juniors are considering becoming early entries into the 2018 NFL Draft and have until next Monday make their decisions.
At least now they have a much clearer picture of what the post-Elko defense will look like.
“Without their commitment and belief in me, I realize that none of this would be possible,” Lea said of the Irish players.
“Notre Dame represents everything I want to be a part of in my career as an educator, and I am deeply humbled to be able to continue my work here.”