Notre Dame makes Clark Lea's hiring official; Elston moves back to D-Line

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Thursday’s official stamp on Clark Lea’s addition to the Notre Dame football coaching staff also solidifies another significant move.

Mike Elston will return to coaching the defensive line, a position group he presided over in head coach Brian Kelly’s first five seasons at Notre Dame (2010-14). It also means Keith Gilmore’s two-year run as D-Line coach is officially over.

The 35-year-old Lea, who comes to ND from Wake Forest with new defensive coordinator Mike Elko, will coach linebackers.

The two have coached two seasons together — this past season at Wake, and in 2012 as part of a Bowling Green defense that finished sixth nationally, one spot ahead of the Manti Te’o-led Irish defense that same season.

Prior to his stint at Bowling Green, Lea also made coaching stops at UCLA and South Dakota State. In the three years in between working with Elko, Lea served as linebackers coach at Syracuse.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said Thursday via prepared statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence.''

Third-year defensive backs coach Todd Lyght is expected to be retained by Elko to fill out the defensive staff.

Elston coached linebackers the past two seasons under deposed defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, then took over the leadership of the defense — collaborating with Kelly and elevated analyst Greg Hudson — once VanGorder was fired on Sept. 25.

Hudson wore the “interim coordinator” tag, even though Elston led the unit. The post-VanGorder defense improved from 103rd nationally in total defense to 42nd. That’s three spots better than the 2015 Irish defense finished with consensus All-America linebacker Jaylon Smith as the unit’s centerpiece.

As ND’s defensive line coach, Elston helped the Irish defense earn its best national ranking and three of its best four over the past decade in rush defense, sacks and turnovers gained.

Meanwhile, Lea, the son of a Tennessee surgeon, attended three different colleges after graduating from Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tenn. — current Irish offensive lineman Alex Bars’ alma mater.

As a freshman, he played baseball and helped Birmingham-Southern win the NAIA World Series. He then transferred to Belmont to play baseball, before finishing at Vanderbilt and walking on to the football team there as a fullback.

Lea went on to become a two-time Southeastern Conference All-Academic selection and graduated in 2004 with a degree in political science.

Last season at Wake, under Lea’s and Elko’s tutelage, senior middle linebacker Marquel Lee led the Demon Deacons with 105 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles while adding 7.5 sacks in 2016.

At ND, Lea will inherit a linebacker corps that loses three-year starter James Onwualu but returns senior-to-be middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, who led the Irish with 94 tackles and four sacks in 2016. Experienced contributors Greer Martini, Te'von Coney and Asmar Bilal also return.

“Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers,'' Kelly said. "As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame officially introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday (photo courtesy Notre Dame athletics).