Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea takes head coach job at Vanderbilt

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Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea will reportedly take over the reins at Vanderbilt, his alma mater, after three years leading the Irish defense, two of which featured undefeated regular seasons and almost assuredly two Playoff berths. ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg was the first of multiple reports with the news Monday morning. Vanderbilt announced the hire in the evening.

A walk-on fullback for the Commodores in 2002-04, Lea was at the top of the list of expected candidates when Vanderbilt fired Derek Mason two weeks ago, and though the athletic director suggested an offensive focus in the coaching search, Lea remained an obvious possibility. He has simply been too successful at Notre Dame to not have been.

Such is the price of program-wide success, and Irish head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged the distinct likelihood of Lea’s departure on Sunday.

“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. That’s a given.

“You’re dealing with professionals here 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. I don’t see that it’s going to be a distraction at all.”

Lea will remain with Notre Dame through the completion of its season, per Vanderbilt’s release.

“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,” Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said. “The dedication and loyalty demonstrated by Clark exemplify his character, and what he will be for the Vanderbilt program.”

This year, in particular, Lea has helmed a defense that has stolen the spotlight from Irish quarterback Ian Book. Preseason expectations of this defense were not meager by any means, but giving up 17.1 points per game has exceeded any presupposed standards. Of teams to have played at least six games, that mark ranks No. 9 in the country; only Northwestern (14.6), Iowa (16.0) and Alabama (16.8) fare better among Power Five teams.

Notre Dame has given up only 314.5 yards per game, No. 12 among teams to have played at least six games and No. 5 among such Power Five teams.

Those numbers are even better than the 2018 unit’s that brought the Irish back to national prominence. That team allowed 18.2 points and 347.4 yards per game, though before Notre Dame faced Clemson in the College Football Playoff, those figures were 17.3 points and 331.5 yards per game.

That semifinal defeat remains one of only four times an opposing team scored 30 or more points against one of Lea’s defenses, this past November’s double-overtime thriller against the Tigers obviously being another. Arguably more impressive, in 36 games as Irish defensive coordinator, Lea held the opposing team below its expected point total in 24.

This season, Lea has saved his best work for the best opposing offenses. Per SP+, the Irish have faced the Nos. 3, 5 and 12 offenses in the country in North Carolina, Clemson and Louisville, respectively. When not playing Notre Dame, they collectively averaged 41.2 points, 519 total yards and 217 rushing yards per game. Against the Irish, they averaged 21.3 points, 335 total yards and 72 rushing yards per game.

Lea’s defenses’ strengths always began with the linebackers, the position group Lea coached in four stops before arriving at Notre Dame as well as in his first year with the Irish. First he turned Te’von Coney from a plodding player missing his run fits into a tackling machine. Then Drue Tranquill transitioned from a misplaced safety into an all-consuming Rover. Asmar Bilal went from career disappointment to keeping up with Georgia’s running backs in the flat. And this season has seen Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah go from not making a tackle in 2018 to becoming a first-round draft pick and likely first-team All-American.

But Lea’s work went beyond the linebacker unit in recent years, and the respect garnered in his players is palpable in talking with any of them.

“Coach Lea is the most brutally honest guy that I’ve ever met in my entire life,” senior defensive tackle Kurt Hinish told NBC’s Jac Collinsworth earlier this season on an episode of the “ND on NBC” podcast. “He says it and it destroys you. When I was a freshman, me and coach Lea had a really hard conversation in his office, and honestly, I believe I’m the player I am today because of the conversation I had with him. … 

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for coach Lea and I’d go to war for that guy any day of the week, and I know all the guys on the defense would. I can ask him anything, not just about football, but anything about life, I feel I can go talk to him about.”

It does not take four years to develop such an appreciation of Lea.

“Coach Lea is one of the most cerebral guys I’ve ever met in my life, if not the most cerebral guy I’ve met in my entire life,” sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton told Collinsworth. “He’s just so meticulous and such a perfectionist that he sets himself and sets us up to put us in the best position possible. That’s why we’re so successful on Saturdays. If we have an issue, he knows how to address it.”

It may take a while for Lea to build to such success in his hometown, but his playing career there made sure Lea knows as much, Vanderbilt going just 3-29 in his three seasons on the roster. The Commodores have just three winning seasons in the last 38 years, yet coaches are given time to figure it out in Nashville. Mason lasted seven years without ever notching a winning record and winning more than two games in the SEC in only two seasons. If Lea can build toward simple mediocrity, it will be seen as a coaching accomplishment by the college football community and serve as another notch on his belt toward a more prestigious job, should he so choose.

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