Notebook: Brian Kelly confident Lea won't be a distraction for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The price of success is staring Brian Kelly in the face now on a daily basis, and the Notre Dame head football coach said he isn’t blinking.

Less than a week away from the Irish playing in their first — and likely last — conference championship game ever in football, third-year ND defensive coordinator Clark Lea remains a viable candidate for Vanderbilt’s head coaching opening.

He reportedly interviewed for the job at his alma mater on Dec. 6. Derek Mason was fired Nov. 29 at Vandy with a cumulative 27-55 record before he could complete his seventh season.

The Commodores fell to 0-9 this past Saturday with a 42-17 loss to Tennessee under interim coach Todd Fitch, and finish at No. 10 Georgia this Saturday.

No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0), meanwhile, looks to solidify its College Football Playoff case Saturday in Charlotte, N.C. against CFP No. 3/AP No. 4 Clemson (9-1) in the ACC Championship Game. Kickoff is 4 p.m. (EST) on ABC. The final playoff rankings and postseason assignments, incidentially, will be revealed Sunday at noon.

“You’re dealing with professionals who recognize when they make a commitment here they’re committing to seeing it through,” Kelly said Sunday via Zoom of the 38-year-old Lea, who came to ND in 2017 as the linebackers coach, then added the coordinator title a year later.

“I’m not really concerned about it. I know our players aren’t as well. As it relates to a distraction, I don’t see that that’s going to be a distraction at all.”

Under Lea, Notre Dame most notably is eighth in the nation in run defense, the best ranking in that national statistical category of the Kelly Era and three spots higher than the vaunted 2012 defense finished.

The Irish ranked 60th in run defense last season and no higher than 70th from 2013-16.

In a Nov. 7 upset of then-No. 1 Clemson, the Irish limited the Tigers to 34 yards on 33 carries. Three weeks later, ND’s defense smothered the North Carolina running back duo of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams to the tune of 85 combined rushing yards on 19 carries and zero TDs in a 31-17 road win.

This past Saturday, that pair combined for 554 rushing yards and five TDs in a 62-26 upending of then-No. 10 Miami.

Notre Dame is strong across the board in the national defensive statistics: 14th in total defense, 12th in scoring defense, 21st in pass-efficiency defense and third in third-down defense.

“Clark’s a professional. He was in it last year with the Boston College job,” Kelly said referring to an opening that eventually went to Ohio State’s Jeff Hafley. “And he’s in it with the Vanderbilt job if it’s the right fit for him.

“He’s in it for the long haul here at Notre Dame. so it’s not going to disrupt what he does in his preparation for the championship game and hopefully moving forward.”

Center of attention

Kelly said Sunday his starting center against Clemson Saturday will be a gametime decision. The Irish have started two different players there since No. 1 option Jarrett Patterson suffered a season-ending foot injury Nov. 14 at Boston College.

Sophomore Zeke Correll got the start Nov. 27 at North Carolina but suffered a high ankle sprain and missed ND’s 45-21 win over Syracuse on Dec. 5. Senior Josh Lugg filled in for that game.

“This has really been about getting Zeke back to a position where we feel like he’s at 100 percent,” Kelly said. “I would say that he’s getting really close. He’s practiced Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“By Saturday, we all felt he was really close to being 100 percent. I think it then becomes a situation where: Has he played enough football for us with the one game that he played then got injured versus Josh playing two games (one at center, one at guard)? Can they both help us at that position?”

• Grad senior Tommy Kraemer (appendectomy) rotated in against Syracuse after Dillan Gibbons started that game in his place, and is back to taking the No. 1 reps at right guard.

• Key backup defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, one of the team’s best interior pass rushers, is back practicing after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee during practice week of the Nov. 14 Boston College game.

Another key interior line depth player, sophomore nose guard Jacob Lacey, also has the green light medically after being limited by injuries over the past couple of games.

Lauding Lawrence

Among the personnel differences for Clemson Saturday from the Nov. 7 meeting is that All-America junior Trevor Lawrence will start at quarterback after having to watch from the sidelines during the loss in South Bend.

Freshman backup D.J. Uiagalelei went on to throw for an opponent-record 439 yards in the Tigers loss.

“It was actually more difficult (prepping for Uiagalelei), because we weren’t sure what D.J.’s skill set was across the board,” Kelly said. “We didn’t have enough film to really evaluate him. And as you know he threw for over 400 yards. He was outstanding.

“We kind of sensed that maybe he wasn’t the same kind of runner, but we had to respect his ability to run read option, and certainly cue runs.

“We really tried to defend (what) Trevor (would do), and then obviously have some things in there that a young quarterback may not have seen before. But that didn’t work so much. He did pretty good.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Lawrence was an asset to have in South Bend, even though the final stages of his recovery from COVID-19 kept him out of game action.

“Just his presence. He was great for D.J.,” Swinney said Sunday via Zoom. “He was a calming influence on the sideline for D.J. and an encouraging voice.

“He’s an inspirational guy, so it was great to have him there. He’s a very, very smart guy. He sees the game from a quarterback perspective. But also I wanted him to get the experience.

“I know he won’t be here when we go back to Notre Dame, I guess in ‘22 we go back up there maybe. I wanted him to have the opportunity to make that trip with us. He was about a day or so away from being able to play but glad he was able to come.”

Playoff posturing

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey was outspoken in his criticism of the ACC opting to give Notre Dame and Clemson this past Saturday off, deleting games against Wake Forest and Florida State, respectively.

Swinney pushed back Sunday.

“If the ACC was trying to really protect Clemson and Notre Dame, why would we even play the game this week?” he said. “If six wins can get you in the playoffs, shouldn’t nine get you there? Shouldn’t 10 get you there?

“So if the ACC was really trying to protect Clemson and Notre Dame, we wouldn’t even play this game. That’s not what we’re about. We want to crown a worthy champion. It’s going to be an awesome game.

“I would have loved to have played this past weekend. I had no problem with that. I didn’t make that decision. We wanted to play when we were down in Tallahassee (Nov. 21). About to get on a bus and go play. Things happen, just like it has all over the place. Things you don’t control.

“All you can do is control whatever goes on. They made this decision. We’ve played 10 games. Notre Dame’s played 10 games. We’re excited to go play a championship, crown a worthy champion of this league and go from there. We want to go play the game. There you go.”

As to whether both teams are playoff-worthy regardless of Saturday’s outcome?

“There’s no question in my mind,” Swinney said. “These are two of the best teams in the country.”

Key matchup

For all the buzz about the quarterbacks in Saturday’s clash, Swinney sees the key positional matchup along the offensive and defensive lines.

“The trenches.” Swinney said. “We got our butts kicked in the first game. It’s just that simple.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea has the Irish among the nation's leaders in scoring defense.

No. 2 NOTRE DAME (10-0) vs. No. 3 CLEMSON (9-1)

Kickoff: Saturday at 4 p.m. EST

Where: Bank of America Stadium; Charlotte, N.C.

TV: ABC

Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Clemson by 10