How Notre Dame DC Clark Lea's 'extremely genuine' approach earns respect of players, recruits

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Zaire Franklin was searching for a family.

He found Clark Lea.

More specifically, he found Syracuse University. At the time, early in 2013, the 6-foot, 216-pound linebacker was a consensus three-star recruit, touting offers from Arizona, Pittsburgh, Temple, Villanova, UConn and more. He had been raised by his mother and grandmother, and both passed away during his junior year at Philadelphia LaSalle High School.

Five years later, Franklin is a member of the Indianapolis Colts, a seventh-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft.

And he hasn’t forgotten the role Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator played in helping him get to this point.

“Coach Lea had a major, major influence on me. He was one of the primary reasons I even went to Syracuse,” Franklin told the Tribune this month. “I was going through a lot with myself personally, had a lot of losses in my immediate family. When I was talking to a lot of coaches it wasn’t extremely genuine, but coach Lea has always been an extremely genuine person from the start.

“Even in high school I’d consider calling coach Lea about real issues I was going through — real life situations with my family, trying to be a man when there’s a lot going on. He was giving me real life advice for that, and I always appreciated it.”

In his first two seasons at Syracuse — his only two under Lea — Franklin produced 125 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, five sacks and three forced fumbles. He cycled through Lea’s footwork drills until the technique was second nature.

But, perhaps more telling, he also became just the fourth sophomore captain in program history.

“He just held me to the highest standard and pushed me every day,” Franklin said of Lea’s influence. “Not only did the things he teach me in football become things that made me the player I am today, but it’s more so the personality impact he helped me with. What it means to be a leader, what it means to control the room and lead by example.”

Lea’s leadership was evident in the first five stops of his coaching career, from South Dakota State to UCLA to Bowling Green to Syracuse to Wake Forest. Chuck Bullough, Lea’s defensive coordinator and colleague both at UCLA and Syracuse, told the Tribune the long-time linebackers coach “always has a great relationship with the players, because he’s himself. He’s just a truthful, honest person, and if you’re a truthful, honest person, generally players will respect it.”

That respect soon propelled Lea up the ladder at Notre Dame.

“You want a guy that the players want to play for,” said former Notre Dame linebacker Greer Martini, who compiled a career-best 75 tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception in his only season under Lea in 2017. “He’s a guy that relates to them and has personal relationships with all the players, and I think that goes a long way, especially with trust.

“Going into his first year (as defensive coordinator), he’s going to have to feel it out. But that respect that the rest of the defensive players have for him will go a long way.”

It certainly went a long way with Franklin, a three-year captain who finished his Syracuse career with 310 tackles and 31.5 tackles for loss. When agents started to contact him during his junior season, Franklin reached out to Lea for advice. When Franklin was drafted in April, Lea called to congratulate him.

“I recruited Zaire and we became really close,” Lea said this month. “He was a guy that I brought to Syracuse with really big plans, and I was excited to see him fulfill a lot of that through his career. and then obviously being drafted, I can’t think of a more deserving person.”

As for his next wave of pupils, Notre Dame signed six linebackers in the last two classes, and two more — four-star prospect Osita Ekwonu and three-star in-state product Jack Kiser — are verbally committed in 2019. Of the 15 Irish commits in the present class, seven are defensive players currently ranked as four-star prospects by Rivals, 247Sports or both.

Plus, there’s no telling what the 2018 Notre Dame defense — which returns nine of 11 starters — will be capable of in the months to come.

But, judging by the testimonies of Lea’s current and former linebackers, buy-in won’t be a problem.

“Coach Lea — I’m trying to tell you guys — I don’t know if it gets much better than him, to be honest,” junior middle linebacker Jonathan Jones said following the Blue-Gold Game in April. “To be able to have not only the same linebacker coach but the type of linebacker coach we have, yeah, it makes everything easier.”

That’s not to say that everything will be easy for Lea in his first season as defensive coordinator. It’s still unclear how the former college catcher-turned-fullback will fare with calling plays, or how effectively Lea will implement in-game adjustments. The Vanderbilt graduate will be learning on the job while simultaneously juggling legitimate playoff aspirations.

But don’t expect him to back down from the challenge, or change the way he approaches both his position and his players.

“If it becomes about me or it becomes about the outcome purely or I’m starting to coach from a place of fear rather than a place of love, then it’s time for me to find something else to do,” Lea said this month.

“I have no doubt he’s going to be successful, especially at a program like that,” Franklin added. “With the values that he likes to preach and with everybody buying in, he has all the tools to be successful. I think he’s going to be a head coach soon.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea signals to players during the Blue-Gold Game.