Following the debacle of 2016, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly had little choice but to look across the country to fill out his coaching staff. On the Pacific Coast, he found Tom(my) Rees, bringing back the former Irish quarterback from the San Diego Chargers to tutor a new generation at that position. Del Alexander came from Arizona State to work with those quarterbacks’ targets, and Brian Polian returned to Notre Dame from Nevada to lead the special teams and Kelly’s recruiting efforts.
A bit south, Chip Long left Memphis after only one year as offensive coordinator to take the same position under Kelly.
And out east, there were Mike Elko and Clark Lea at Wake Forest, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, respectively.
Kelly needed to cast such a wide net to find a new variety of voices needed on his staff. Coaches at different points in their careers — Rees just beginning, Polian entering his third decade, the rest somewhere between — would provide different points of view. New schemes from new coordinators could reinvent the Irish approach.
The result? A 10-3 season concluding with a New Year’s Day bowl victory and a slot at No. 11 in the polls.
The unfortunate side effect of that came in Elko turning the impressive defensive revival into an even bigger check at Texas A&M after just the one season, somewhat akin to Long parlaying a season at Memphis leading the No. 15 scoring offense in the country (38.8 points per game) into a gig at Notre Dame.
This time, Kelly did not need to change his staff’s dynamics, he did not need to find a new defensive approach, and he did not need to look further than the hallway to fill the hole left by Elko. Lea was right there, fluent in the current scheme, known to the current roster and with relationships with both signed and targeted recruits.
“Clark has demonstrated an ability to motivate, lead, teach and mentor through a positive teaching environment, while also developing the necessary traits of excellence in our players,” Kelly said in a statement announcing the promotion Tuesday. “Clark has an incredible football knowledge, a keen understanding of personnel and a fierce work ethic, which leaves no doubt in my mind that we’ll maintain the defensive standard necessary to win at the highest level.”
Kelly saw the effects Lea can have on players in the progressions of current junior linebacker Te’von Coney and senior linebacker Drue Tranquill this year. The development of those two complemented the known commodities of seniors Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini to create a quartet totaling 368 tackles, the top-four tacklers for the Irish in 2017.
With Lea aboard, that development should continue and the scheme will remain the same, a design seemingly-perfect for Tranquill to once again be a consistent playmaker. In his debut season at rover, Tranquill managed 10.5 tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks, broke up three passes including one interception, and forced three fumbles with one recovery.
That scheme was in mind when Notre Dame sought out four linebackers, three of them four-stars, in this recruiting class thus far. Lea certainly played a distinct role in securing that haul, filling a depth chart need.
This promotion resonated well with consensus four-star Jack Lamb (Great Oak High School; Temecula, Calif.), for example.
“This is the best possible choice that could have been made, in my opinion,” Lamb told Irish Illustrated’s Kevin Sinclair. “It’s going to keep the defense pretty much the same with a new voice at the top. I think it’s going to be great for the team and great for the defense.”
If Kelly had looked far and wide for Elko’s replacement, he would have opened a door to a shift to a 3-4 defensive front. Such a change would be one in the wrong direction if playing to this roster’s strengths. All reasoning also says it would have sent Lea to A&M with Elko, logic ND Insider’s Eric Hansen reports as fact.
Then Kelly would have been searching for two new coaches only 12 months after revamping this staff once already.
Lea’s promotion does not come without questions. He has never led a defense before, though his dozen years in coaching have all focused on that side of the ball. Three of those years came under Elko, including the last two. Did Lea learn how to balance an aggressive scheme with weekly adjustments? Yes or no, he will fortunately have time to get up to speed.
The Irish open with Michigan on Sept. 1. The Wolverines struggled mightily on offense this season, averaging 25.2 points and gaining only 348.9 yards per game, the latter being No. 105 in the country. For that matter, Michigan may have more questions at quarterback moving forward than Notre Dame does.
In that regard, Lea will have until the season’s fifth week and a visit from Stanford on Sept. 29 before his defense is genuinely tested. That soft opening should give him a chance to ease into the added aspects of his new role.
In maintaining a successful defensive scheme, knowing the current roster and having already proven worthwhile recruiting acumen, Lea represented the greatest short-term reward for Kelly. His inexperience as a coordinator and thus inherently-unproven ability to match wits with an opposing play caller also make him the biggest long-term risk.
On Elston as Associate Head Coach
Notre Dame also announced the promotion of defensive line coach Mike Elston from assistant head coach to associate head coach. This nomenclature differentiation acknowledges Elston was at least in the mix for the defensive coordinator role, and it almost certainly comes with an uptick in the appropriate ACH payment.
“In many ways, Mike can best be described as the backbone of our coaching staff,” Kelly said. “… He’s, without a doubt, a future head coach and we’re very, very fortunate to have him on our staff.”
The public recognition of Elston serves notice Kelly knows the only remaining assistant from his original Irish staff will not be around for much longer. Elston has further goals in mind, and Kelly will not stand in the way of those.
Along with the assumed paycheck change, the shift from assistant to associate will also apparently include more front-facing duties.
“In addition to his duties related to coaching the defensive line, Elston will represent the program when directed to so by Kelly or when Kelly is unavailable,” the statement announcing the promotion read. “This will include but not be limited to assisting in managing the football program, participating in press conferences, making public appearances (including alumni and donor functions) and attending departmental and University meetings.”
That is not mere press release filler. Those are duties Elston will need to handle when he has a program of his own. In essence, Kelly is attempting to craft a head coach training program for his longtime assistant, proof of good faith in helping Elston to his next opportunity.
Without that, there would be inherent risk to Elston leaving abruptly after being bypassed for defensive coordinator for the second time in two offseasons. Again, it would be far from ideal to replace multiple coaches after 2017 redirected Notre Dame in the preferred direction. Losing Elston would have been especially bothersome, considering his hand in transforming the defensive line from presumed weakness to source of strength.
Now, Kelly still needs to find a safeties coach.
Lea will remain with the linebackers and Elston with the defensive line. Todd Lyght is still around to work with the cornerbacks. Kelly needs a safeties coach, especially this year. It is the position most needing development if 2018 is to thoroughly build on the positive work Elko started.
The assured short-term gains of Lea’s rise and the steadying influence of Elston on board will keep the Irish defense on that track as a whole.