Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea named head coach at Vanderbilt

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Clark Lea will return to his alma mater.

The Notre Dame defensive coordinator will become Vanderbilt's next head coach, Vanderbilt athletic director Candice Lee announced Monday night.

In her announcement, Lee indicated Lea would continue to coach for the No. 2 Irish (10-0, 9-0 ACC) at least through Saturday's ACC Championship (4 p.m. ET on ABC) in Charlotte, N.C.

“I want to extend Vanderbilt’s deepest thanks and appreciation to Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins, athletics director Jack Swarbrick and head coach Brian Kelly for their cooperation during this process," Lee said in the announcement. "It is very important to all of us, and especially Clark, that he be able to fulfill his obligations with the Notre Dame program and its student-athletes as they prepare to face Clemson in the ACC title game for a berth in the College Football Playoff.

"The dedication and loyalty demonstrated by Clark exemplify his character, and what he will be for the Vanderbilt program.”

Lea will be introduced as Vanderbilt's head coach in a press conference next week. The announcement didn't make clear if Lea would coach for the Irish beyond the ACC Championship.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was asked Sunday if a potential departure for Lea would be a distraction for the Irish as they prepare to play No. 3 Clemson (9-1, 8-1) on Saturday.

“Clark’s a professional,” Kelly said. “He was in it last year with the Boston College job and he’ll be in it. He’s in it with the Vanderbilt job, again, 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, right? That’s a given.

“You’re dealing with professionals that recognize that when they make a commitment here, they’re committing to seeing it through. 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.”

Vanderbilt named Lea, 38, its next head coach just before the early signing period for college football, which runs Wednesday through Friday of this week. Lea may be compelled to start recruiting for Vanderbilt as soon as possible.

Lea played fullback at Vanderbilt from 2002-04 after playing baseball at Birmingham-Southern and Belmont. He was raised in Nashville, Tenn., where Vanderbilt is located, and attended Montgomery Bell Academy. He received undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science from Vanderbilt.

Lea has led Notre Dame’s defense for the past three seasons. He came to Notre Dame as a linebackers coach under former Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko, whom Lea followed from Wake Forest to Notre Dame.

Lea was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2018 after Elko left to become Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator. In Lea’s first two seasons as defensive coordinator, Notre Dame ranked among the top 13 in the FBS in scoring defense and among the top 30 in total defense.

The Irish currently sit ranked No. 12 in scoring defense (17.1 points per game) and No. 14 in total defense (314.5 yards per game) for the 2020 season.

Vanderbilt fired head coach Derek Mason in November after an 0-8 start to the season. He compiled a 27-55 record in seven seasons leading the Commodores. Vanderbilt hasn't finished with a winning season since former head coach James Franklin left for Penn State following the 2013 season.

“I’m excited to come back to Vanderbilt to lead a program, at an institution and in a city, that gave me so much and shaped who I am today,” Lea said in Vanderbilt's announcement. “Vanderbilt is a special place with a competitive drive that I believe can translate into winning. My excitement for the role grew as I spent time with Candice Lee and Chancellor (Daniel) Diermeier — it’s very clear they are united around a common vision for the future of the Vanderbilt Athletics program and football.”

Butkus finalists

Notre Dame rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and commit Prince Kollie both advanced to the finalist round for the Butkus Award at the college and high school levels, respectively.

The award, given to the nation’s top linebacker, announced five finalists Monday at both levels.

Owusu-Koramoah, also a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy (defensive player of the year) and semifinalist for the Bednarik Award (defensive player) and Lott IMPACT Trophy (defensive player for character and performance), leads the Irish with 49 tackles and nine tackles for a loss. He also has forced three fumbles, broken up three passes, recovered two fumbles, intercepted one pass and scored one touchdown on a fumble return against Clemson.

Kollie, who plans to sign with the Irish on Wednesday when the early signing period begins, tallied 109 tackles and 11 tackles for a loss in his senior season at Jonesborough (Tenn.) David Crockett, according to MaxPreps. He also rushed for 1,562 yards and 26 touchdowns. Both Rivals and 247Sports rate Kollie as a four-star recruit.

Moore honors

The goal set by Notre Dame’s offensive line remains in reach.

On Monday, the unit was named as one of the 11 semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award. The Irish haven’t been shy about stating their objective of winning the award for the nation’s top offensive line.

Notre Dame’s offensive line was joined by the likes of Alabama, Buffalo, BYU, Coastal Carolina, Iowa, Iowa State, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio State and Texas A&M.

The announcement highlighted Notre Dame’s time of possession (ranked No. 7 in the FBS) and third-down conversion rate (also ranked seventh) as key accomplishments for the Irish offensive line. The Irish also rank No. 11 nationally in rushing offense with 235 yards per game.

Notre Dame’s offensive line has allowed 1.8 sacks per game (No. 39 in FBS) and 5.3 tackles for a loss per game (No. 37).

Four Irish offensive linemen have been named ACC Offensive Lineman of the week this season: left tackle Liam Eichenberg (twice), right tackle Robert Hainsey, left guard Aaron Banks and right guard Tommy Kraemer.

Finalists for the Joe Moore Award will be announced next Monday. Notre Dame previously won the award in 2017.

Positive test

Notre Dame’s streak of three weeks without a positive COVID-19 test in its football program ended last week.

The Irish program reported Monday that one player tested positive between last Monday and Sunday. That player was placed into isolation and no close contacts were identified.

To date, the football program has reported 53 positive tests since testing started June 18. Only four positive tests have been reported since Nov. 3.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea is expected to be named the next head coach at Vanderbilt, according to multiple reports.
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea steps off the team bus before the game against the Syracuse on Dec. 5 in South Bend.