Off and running, deliberate details define Clark Lea's approach to leading Irish defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He runs like his scalp is on fire.

With conviction. With a purpose. And without really breathing hard.

“I try to stay in shape,” Clark Lea, Notre Dame’s 36-year-old, first-year defensive coordinator said this week of his practice custom of racing his football players in between drills from one station to the next.

“So it’s part of the deal. Part of the job.”

And part of the detailed and deliberate blueprint.

What it’s designed to do is coax an Irish defense to evolve into one this fall that draws comparisons to the stellar 2012 iteration.

The pieces may be there.

Ten returning starters, for starters. An infusion of talent at safety, the soft spot in last year’s defense. A defensive end group that is as deep as head coach Brian Kelly has had in nine seasons and is showing signs this spring of stifling the media’s persistent pass rush-questions.

But it’s how those — and other — pieces fit together and move together and buy in and believe, Lea is convinced, that can catalyze a significant statistical jump in 2018, and beyond.

Hence, the many offseason meetings with players not under his watch in 2017, when ND’s linebackers and rovers constituted the extent of his domain, to help them understand what makes him tick and vice versa.

“I think you always want your position group or your unit to take on your personality in subtle ways,” Lea said, with the Irish on Saturday a third of the way through their 15 spring practices. “I don’t want a bunch of robots, but I want guys to understand what we’re going to be about, how we’re going to do things. That requires one-on-one attention.

“For me to have an expectation for a (cornerback), let’s say, and for me not to articulate that to him and share that vision with him so he can work towards it, I’m failing him in some ways.

“That’s what those meetings are about, and that’s fun for me. I want to grow that relationship.”

Growing them through explaining the relevance of every drill the players are asked to do. By being so hands-on that he’s rolling the giant, donut-shaped tackling-drill pads out himself instead of designating that duty to a manager.

And by running. All that running, and where the success of it is apparently measured in the urgency of it, not the stopwatch.

“It’s not good,” the self-effacing Lea, a former Vanderbilt fullback who’s now built like a svelte civilian, said of his current time in the 40-yard dash when pressed for it. “But you’re going to get everything I’ve got.”

Including what all the running is about.

“Anything we ask the players to do — obviously we’re not capable of some things — but especially when it comes to energy output, we want to set the tone for it,” he said.

“We want to create a level of competition, even how we exchange drills. When they see us running, they’ll start running. They’ll start racing me. Ultimately, I never win those races, but it’s fun to do it anyway. That’s what that’s about.”

What it’s not about is how different Lea is from predecessor Mike Elko, whose impactful first season at ND ended abruptly in January with a jolting exodus for a bigger paycheck at Texas A&M.

What divergences that do exist between the two are more style than substantive.

“He’s a really close friend,” Lea said. “There’s a reason we worked together for as long as we did and as many different places as we did.”

And so the base philosophy, the base approach that helped the Irish gain at least 20 spots in the national rankings last season in rush defense, pass-efficiency defense, scoring defense, sacks, tackles for loss, third-down defense and turnovers gained, will be built upon, refined.

Instead of razed and redefined.

“We were constantly addressing the dilemmas of playing defense in the modern era,” Lea said of Elko, who brought Lea with him to ND in 2017 from Wake Forest, “And I think a good coordinator doesn’t come in and say, ‘This is how we’re doing it, and that’s it.’

“Just like any healthy, functioning organization, you’re looking to draw and pull opinions from all areas. Conversations Mike and I had that were late at night or early in the morning, where he’d come in and plop down and we’d hash something out that we were struggling with.

“The thing I think he did really well is that it was never OK to him to not have an answer. If you’re looking at something and you see the dilemma that a player’s in and you’re not addressing it, then you’re not coaching the players to their highest level.

“That’s something that I always loved about him. We never just did what we did. It was always, ‘Is what we’re doing putting our players in a position to be successful?’ ”

One of Lea’s first orders of business, upon his elevation to the coordinator position in January, was trying to convince both incumbent starting nose guard Jerry Tillery and surging linebacker and leading tackler Te’von Coney to defer their NFL dreams until after their senior seasons in 2018.

Both elected to stay, as did fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill, with all three standouts delighted with subtle position shifts this spring, engineered by Lea.

His to-do list over the remainder of spring practice may not be as initially daunting, but it’s longer.

It includes building quality depth at the interior defensive line positions, identifying and developing the new rover (vacated by Tranquill’s move), figuring out whether the depth elsewhere is good enough to rotate personnel like hockey line changes, and helping Coney close the gap between his elite run-game prowess and developing pass coverage skills.

“I take responsibility,” Lea said. “I need to coach him better. He is a very capable coverage player. I think one thing in him coming back is us joining arms and working toward that vision. I’m excited for him to grow in that way and that makes him a more complete player.”

That a former fullback, who started his college athletic career as a baseball player and transferred twice, ended up with such a passion and aptitude for defensive football was a bit of an accident of circumstance, but nothing since has been along those lines.

“It was the job that was available,” he said with a laugh of the graduate assistant job to work on defense in 2006 at UCLA under head coach Karl Dorrell.

“I will say this, I played fullback, because that position chose me. And you can take that how you might. The position is now almost dead in college football. I guess the cool thing is when I got into coaching, I knew it was a defensive job, and I went at it full speed.

“I really am more of a defensive-minded person in general. The things that excite me in general about football are modeled on defense — the toughness, the back against the wall, the ‘You’re in a dogfight.’ I’m not as much a flash-and-flair guy. It’s just how I am. It’s how I’m wired.”

On Sept. 1, when reawakened rival Michigan comes to Notre Dame for the season opener, Lea and everybody else will get to see how he’s wired for calling games.

His only dabbling in it came toward the end of UCLA’s 2011 season, in Lea’s second tour of duty at the school, and a season in which his head coach, Rick Neuheisel, was fired.

“That’s an area that I’m going to have to spend time on and grow in. I’ve always been in game-planning or, over the course of the game, involved myself at least in terms of thinking, suggesting or recommending or processing the way the coordinator processes.”

Added Kelly, “I think leadership and the ability to teach would be the first two things that I would be looking for in a coordinator. And the third would be the tactical piece, relative to game-day calling of the defense.

“He’s been around the game long enough that I felt that was the one piece if there was a learning curve, that was less of an issue.

“If those players love to play for you and they’re going to get after it for you and they know what they’re doing, they’re going to make up for a lot of bad calls.”

For a coordinator who’s considerably younger than every one of the defensive coordinators on ND’s 2018 schedule and the only one who hasn’t officially worn the tag of at least co-coordinator in a game, his vision of what it should look like at this juncture seems like it’s been forever in the making.

“This is about honing your craft,” Lea begins as he launches into the next drill.

Then come the details and the hows and the whys.

“The coaching I responded to most was not being brow-beaten or having something shoved down my throat,” he said. “It was being presented with how this was going to make you a better player.

“And so when you do that, I think you create buy-in to it. You want the execution of the drill to be in a way they know exactly how it’s going to affect them … in the game. When they do that, their attention, their focus, their execution of the drill is higher.

“That’s where that comes from. I try to coach these guys in a way that’s respectful of their intelligence, and I know how desperately they want to be good.”

Defensive Coordinator Clark Lea talks to his defense during Notre Dame football spring practice, Saturday inside the Loftus Sports Center. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)