Notebook: Clark Lea dissects the Slim Reaper, Notre Dame's run defense and double duty

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In maybe his final act in a run that transformed his coaching trajectory and that of Notre Dame’s defense long term, Clark Lea is challenged with mitigating perhaps the best college wide receiver this century and the one with — even less arguably — the coolest nickname.

DeVonta “Slim Reaper” Smith.

“I think the one thing that stands out is he’s got another gear,” Notre Dame’s outgoing defensive coordinator said Tuesday via Zoom of the 2020 Heisman Trophy favorite. “When he hits his accelerator, he has a chance to separate.

“And the number of times you see that on film, you understand pretty quickly that every snap there’s an opportunity for them to score.”

Smith (98 catches, 1,511 yards, 17 TDs) and No. 1 Alabama, No. 4 Notre Dame’s opponent in Friday’s Rose Bowl/College Football Playoff Semifinal in Arlington, Texas, are averaging 29.6 points a game in the first halves alone this season.

That’s more than 71 of the 127 other FBS teams are putting up over the course of entire games. The Crimson Tide (11-0) has scored 35 points or more in an NCAA-record 24 consecutive games, a streak that started right after a 44-16 thrashing from Clemson in the CFP National Championship Game to cap the 2018 season.

“There’s a lot of people that contribute to their success,” Lea said of the Crimson Tide offense, No. 2 nationally in scoring (49.7 ppg). “And so you can’t — you have to account for the most explosive player, but you can’t only defend one guy, because there’s other guys that can hurt you. So it’s a unique challenge.”

If there is a path, though, for the 20-point underdog Irish (10-1) to get to the Jan. 11 CFP National Championship Game in Miami, Gardens, Fla., it starts with getting back to the identity that got them to their second CFL semifinal in three years in the first place.

Running the ball and stopping the run.

Until its 34-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 19, those traits are why Notre Dame has been one of the best third-down teams nationally on both sides of the ball, has controlled tempo and limited its opponents’ offensive plays.

The Tigers, outrushed 208-34 in their 47-40 double-overtime loss to the Irish Nov. 7 in South Bend, flipped that to a 210-44 command six weeks later in the rematch.

The 44 rushing yards are tied for the fourth-fewest amassed in a game in the 11-year Brian Kelly Era. As troubling was yielding 210 yards to the nation’s No. 65 rushing team (Clemson) one game after it coughed up 229 to the No. 121 rushing team in a sloppy Senior Day win over ACC lightweight Syracuse.

That after stringing six straight games of holding opponents under 100 yards rushing, including the nation’s No. 10 rushing team, North Carolina.

Alabama ranks 44th in rushing offense, but features first-team All-American Najee Harris, a 6-2, 230-pound senior with a nation’s best 24 rushing touchdowns and three TD catches this season.

“Obviously, as the games get bigger and the opponents get better, when you have small lapses or small issues, they become big and you can get exposed really quickly,” Lea said. “So we have to be on point.”

In both of the recent regressions, Lea said the Irish defense got away from its level of execution, but also pressed and played outside the structure of the defense, leaving gaps open for big plays when defenders abandoned their assignments and tried to do too much.

“When guys function as one of 11, it streamlines their processing in snap,” Lea said. “And when you streamline processing within a snap, you’re able to play at your physical best, because you’re just exerting your strength and power through your technique.”

Managing a double life?

Since being named head coach at alma mater Vanderbilt on Dec. 14, Lea has done little more in that capacity, he said, beyond slapping on a gray suit for a Dec. 20 introductory press conference and letting a small group of support staff navigate the rest.

“My singular focus has been on preparation for this (Alabama) game,” Lea said. “And I know that may be hard to believe, but this is too big. I mean, whatever is to come next for me will be there when this season’s finished.

Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea shows off a wrist band honoring a fallen friend during his playing days for the Commodores.

“But this is a culmination of four years of investment for me. And it’s not just about me, obviously. It’s four years of investment with these players.

“And so I’m excited about the future, but this is the discipline just to stay focused on the task at hand. But emotionally the investment, all the things that we’ve done over this time, it makes it easy.”

At No. 14 in scoring defense nationally heading into the CFP Semifinal/Rose Bowl, Notre Dame has a chance to finish in the top 20 in that statistical category in all three of Lea’s seasons as Irish defensive coordinator. He was promoted from linebacker coach after the 2017 season with no formal coordinator experience.

The last time the Irish strung together three straight seasons of top 20 scoring defenses was the 1973 national champs under coach Ara Parseghian, and the two seasons that followed.

Being able to finish the job in 2020, Lea said, had to be part of the equation in accepting the head coaching position at Vanderbilt.

“That was an important part on both ends,” he said. “If we’re going to be about commitment, let’s function with integrity and allow for commitment to be seen through here.

“So not been an issue and won’t be an issue. And obviously with an opponent like Alabama, every bit of my mental and emotional energy has got to be put into this game plan.”

Sporting News All-Americans

Senior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah took another step toward becoming a consensus All-American Tuesday and remains in play to earn unanimous honors.

The Sporting News named him a first-teamer Tuesday, along with Irish grad offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg. Owusu-Koramoah needs one more first-team berth on the remaining three big five All-America teams to earn consensus status.

“There’s a willingness to be coached and developed,” Lea said of Owusu-Koramoah’s evolution from three-star prep prospect to college All-American. “There’s like a humility involved in that, where it takes a certain personality to step back and say, ‘Hey, this is something I really want. I’m not where I need to be. And, coach, how do I get to where I need to be?’

“I mean, that’s never easy. And it’s certainly not without hiccups along the way. But for Wu, his development off the field really has kind of translated into his development on the field.

“And I’m talking specifically just about structuring his day, just being on top of all the little things that this program demands of you, the attention to detail. And I think as he’s really flourished on this campus, that has absolutely transferred to his on-field performance.

“And so it’s allowed him to reach for his potential as a player. And I still think that we’re continuing to push for that highest level for him. That’s what’s exciting for him moving forward.”

Irish sophomore running back Kyren Williams and senior offensive guard Aaron Banks were Sporting News second-teamers.

Notre Dame has 29 individuals who have won unanimous honors, comprising 34 selections because of repeat honorees. Offensive guard Quenton Nelson is the most recent to make all five major All-America teams, in 2017.

ND’s last consensus All-American is cornerback Julian Love (2018). He was the 86th individual and 102nd selection in school history.

Looking ahead

Friday is the eighth football meeting between Notre Dame and Alabama and the fourth to occur in the postseason. The Irish lead the series, 5-2.

The next time the teams are scheduled to meet in the regular season is 2028 at Notre Dame Stadium, with a return trip for the Irish to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2029.

Clark Lea won’t have to wait as long to face the Crimson Tide in a regular-season game. Alabama is one of Vanderbilt’s two crossover opponents from the SEC West in 2022.

Outgoing Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea is tasked with slowing down an Alabama offense averaging nearly 50 points a game.

No. 4 NOTRE DAME (10-1) vs. No. 1 ALABAMA (11-0)

Kickoff: Friday at 4 p.m. EST

Where: AT&T Stadium; Arlington, Texas


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

Line: Alabama by 20