Notre Dame linebackers coach Clark Lea promoted to defensive coordinator

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Clark Lea learned how to give a campus tour from Rick Neuheisel.

In 2009, Lea — who was announced on Tuesday as Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator — was a lowly graduate assistant linebackers coach at UCLA, a former college fullback and baseball player with little significant recruiting experience. Neuheisel, meanwhile, was his uniquely charismatic head coach.

Eight years later, Neuheisel's lessons still lingered. Shortly after following coveted defensive coordinator Mike Elko from Wake Forest to Notre Dame last winter, Lea sat at a table inside the Loftus Center and explained his recruiting philosophy through a story.

“Any recruit that we’d offer, when they came on campus, it wasn’t a student taking them around or another coach. He was with them,” Lea said of Neuheisel. “UCLA is obviously a beautiful place and you’re able to get out year-round, but he would have stories at each stop. He would stop and explain historical significance. He would give a personal anecdote or something funny.

“I can remember, the first time I went with him, he was on the top of Janss Steps, and he had all the families look west and get hit by the breeze in their face. He said, ‘Do you feel that? That’s the ocean breeze.’ And, ‘Look over there. That’s Bel Air.’

"He was just really a neat storyteller. He had a way of making the place where your feet were incredibly special.”

Now, Lea has the opportunity to make Notre Dame even more, "incredibly special.''

“Clark has quickly established himself as a rising star in the coaching profession,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said in a statement on Tuesday, after naming Lea the program's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. “He immediately commands the respect of those around him, whether that be in a meeting room, on a practice field or in a prospective student-athlete’s living room."

Not to mention the campus tour.

Plus, Lea wasn't the only Irish staffer to be promoted on Tuesday. Notre Dame assistant head coach and defensive line coach Mike Elston, who has worked under Kelly dating back to Central Michigan in 2004, will remain on staff as the program's associate head coach, ND announced.

Sure, Elston isn't adding a drastically different title, but, synonyms aside, Notre Dame's ability to retain both Lea and Elston is significant for the Irish defense.

“I love the University of Notre Dame," Elston said in a statement. "My family and I are blessed to be a part of this University. ... I’m very excited to stay with the defensive line and help them develop to their fullest potential — both on and off the field.”

As for the linebackers, Lea — who has coached that group for six programs across 11 consecutive seasons — had an immediate impact on the Irish linebacker corps last fall. Junior Te'von Coney made an astronomical leap, leading the team with 116 tackles and 13 tackles for loss despite starting just seven games. Senior rover Drue Tranquill also impressed, producing 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries and 1.5 sacks in his first season at the position.

Notre Dame's top four tacklers, in fact, were all linebackers or rovers coached specifically by Lea.

Coney — a 6-foot-1, 240-pound junior — has yet to announce whether he will return to Notre Dame for a senior season in 2018.

His opinion of Lea, however, is beyond dispute.

“I’m just blessed to have the opportunity to have someone like coach Lea, who stays on me each and every day, pushing me and challenging me to be my best,” Coney said after accepting the "Impact Player Award" at the annual Echoes awards banquet in December.

Should Coney opt for the NFL Draft, there will still be plenty of competition at Lea's position this spring and summer. Notre Dame signed three linebackers last month in the NCAA's new early signing period: Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo, as well as rover Shayne Simon. Lamb, Bauer and Simon are all four-star recruits and top-200 prospects in the 2018 class, according to Rivals.

Of course, another attractive byproduct of Lea's promotion — beyond his recent statistical results and recruiting vigor — is the fact that Notre Dame can continue teaching and developing the 4-2-5 scheme that Elko installed in 2017.

In that system and under that tutelage, a once-struggling Irish defense ranked 31st in scoring defense (21.5 points per game) in 2017, 6.3 points and 30 spots better than its 2016 total.

With another season in a familiar system, there's reason to expect continued improvement.

“I think across the board you’re going to see an enormous jump. I do," Elko said in December, prior to his departure. "I think you’re going to see an enormous jump from everyone. When you start a year cycle with a solid foundation of what you’re looking to do, where that can go is so high."

Of course, this is still far from a slam dunk hire. Lea has never served as a defensive coordinator on any level. In fact, the Nashville, Tenn., native and Vanderbilt alum has only ever coached linebackers throughout his somewhat limited 12-year career. Notre Dame will also have to hire an established safeties coach to replace Elko.

But, at the very least, Elston — who served as the program's interim defensive coordinator after Brian VanGorder was fired in Sept. 2016 — will be there to help him through it.

“Mike has been instrumental to the success of Notre Dame football,” Kelly said of Elston. “His commitment and passion for this program and University are second to none. In many ways, Mike can best be described as the backbone of our coaching staff."

If Elston is the backbone, Lea is the brain.

Now, he's got plenty of time to perfect the campus tour at Notre Dame.

"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,” Lea said in a statement.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame linebackers coach Clark Lea runs drills during practice, Friday, March 31, 2017, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ