If your coaching carousel pool had a box for Clark Lea Defensive Coordinator Notre Dame, and you had that box, congrats – you won! Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports reports that Brian Kelly will soon end an intense few days of fan base speculation when he promotes Lea to replace the departed Mike Elko.

The Case for Clark

Lea was the clear continuity choice. Consider:

  • 2017 was his third season working with Elko, so he knows the system.
  • He has also made a big impression on Irish players and coaches in a short time as an excellent teacher.
  • The cherry on the sundae is that he has already proven himself to be a plus recruiter; he was the reason Jack Lamb signed with the Irish a few weeks ago and Jeremiah Owusu flipped to the Irish last cycle. His next recruiting job will be to convince Te’Von Coney, who blossomed under his coaching this year, to stay.

Lea has shown an ability to develop talent as well; not only did Coney emerge this year, but Wake Forest MLB Marquel Lee had a season for the ages in 2016. Lee matched his previous career output in sacks and nearly doubled his career TFLs. Whether Coney comes back or not, Notre Dame will definitely need a couple of young linebackers to step up next year. Keeping Lea around is a good step toward making sure that happens. One of my favorite glimpses of Lea as a coach was in the USC ICON, which included a flashback to a preseason moment between him and Coney. He quietly called Coney over as practice went on. In an almost inaudible tone, he said, “Te’Von, what’s going on today? I feel like I’m not getting your best. Would you agree with that?” It struck me as a true teacher’s approach to his job. Love it.

There’s some concern about readiness, as Lea is in his mid-30’s and hasn’t been a coordinator before. However, there’s no question he’s intelligent and has a great resume otherwise. He holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in political science from Vanderbilt, where he was a two-time All-SEC Academic Team selection. He coached linebackers at UCLA under respected DC Chuck Bullough, then moved to Bowling Green to work with Elko for the first time. He headed to Syracuse to work with with former Jim Harbaugh DC Scott Shafer. He then reunited with Elko at Wake Forest in 2016 before following him to Notre Dame last year. Bullough, Shafer, and Elko are all pretty sharp defensive minds, and all obviously liked Lea. That’s a strong recommendation in itself.

The Rest of the Staff

Mike Elston has now been passed over for the DC job twice, three times if you count BVG’s hire. Will he leave? That’s a tough call. He has to be making good money right now with the recruiting coordinator and assistant head coach titles. I haven’t seen any rumors of anyone else coming after him. He’s been with Brian Kelly for 14 years, and has spent his entire playing and coaching career in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. That’s a lot of incentive to stay put. If he leaves, I think it’s more likely he’d leave for a head coaching job than a coordinator job.

There’s also the small matter of replacing Elko’s position responsibility, which was safeties. Given Lea’s youth, Notre Dame should look for an experienced secondary coach to take over the safeties. If he has coordinator experience somewhere in his background, so much the better. This is nearly as critical a hire as the DC position.

History Is On Our Side (Maybe)

What’s that you say? When was the last time Notre Dame promoted a linebacker coach with no coordinator experience? Hm, good question. The answer to that particular bit of trivia is none other than Barry Alvarez, who Lou Holtz kicked upstairs in 1988 when Foge Fazio left for the NFL.

Start making travel plans now, Irish fans. The playoffs await.