ND defensive coordinator Clark Lea's career comes full circle against Vanderbilt
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - When Notre Dame found itself once again looking for a defensive coordinator this past offseason, they could've cast a wide net in their search for Mike Elko's replacement.
But the Irish found their man inside their own building, promoting the mostly-anonymous linebackers coach Clark Lea back in January.
"I absolutely had my sights set on this opportunity," Lea said then in his first press availability, "and I was totally wrapped up in getting the chance to do this. I feel 100 percent prepared to assume that role."
Several months later - and now two games into Lea's first season as coordinator - the experienced Irish defense has continued to grow with the steady confidence of its leader, and it's done so thanks in large part to the linebackers Lea has coached since his arrival in 2017.
"They kind of know my heart the best," he told ABC57, "and so we talk about that unit being the tip of the spear on defense."
To a man, the Irish defense says they're impressed, not only with Lea's knowledge of the game, but in the way he's able to connect with their experience as players.
Of course, both of those strengths come from Lea's time in his own pads - memories this weekend's game against Vanderbilt will surely bring to mind.
"I'll have an extra group of friends and family for that game and it's always special to share in that."
A Nashville native, Lea played three seasons from the Vanderbilt Commodores from 2002-04.
After playing baseball at Birmingham Southern and Belmont, he transferred to Vanderbilt and walked onto the football team as a fullback, though those years were filled with plenty of adversity.
"I was on teams that won six game in three years," Lea said of his playing career. "Those experiences were probably the most formative of my life and that's what this is all about, so it was a great starting point for me."
Though he struggled to see the field and his team struggled to find success, Lea says that time at Vanderbilt taught him plenty about earning everything you get.
And it even sparked his desire to become a coach.
"That sting is what kind of drove me into saying 'I want to do this at a high level. I want to win a national championship.'"
After his playing days, Lea took that mindset into a coaching career and began working his way up the ranks.
He coached linebackers at several stops including UCLA, Bowling Green, Syracuse, and Wake Forest before landing in South Bend.
The whole way, he's tried to stay consistent in his growth, which both his players and his fellow coaches appreciate.
"He's not going to ask us to do anything he doesn't do himself," said linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill. "He lets us know each and every day, I'm coming here to be the same man each day."
"It's one to be a great communicator, great teacher and have a great relationship," said head coach Brian Kelly, "but if you're not consistent at what you do every day, well, that's what we're looking for our team."
And so far, so good.
The Irish defense has allowed just two touchdowns in its first two games, and has forced twice as many turnovers.
But despite his seemingly immediate success since arriving at a premier position, Lea is determined to continue growing and learning - just as he did as a walk-on for the team he's now coaching against.
"Coordinating a defense is about collecting. It's about collecting thoughts, and perspectives, and ideas so that by the time we're playing, we feel like we're on the same page and pulling in the same direction."