Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

The Chameleon Clark Lea

July 14, 2020

When Mike Elko unexpectedly left Notre Dame for Texas A&M after a year, Brian Kelly had to make a critical decision at defensive coordinator. He could look outside of the program like he had done with Elko or promote from within.

He chose the latter with the coach Elko brought with him from Wake Forest, Clark Lea.

There was some risk involved with it. He knew Lea was a bright young coach who was going to be a great coordinator one day. Was he ready to be a great coordinator now, though?

We know the answer was yes based on what we’ve seen from him over the last two seasons.

Notre Dame has finished 14th and 8th in yards per play with Lea running the defense. He’s quickly established himself as a rising star in the coaching ranks and probably won’t be at Notre Dame for too much longer before he gets snatched up to run his own program.

Maybe the most impressive thing about Lea is the way he has adapted his game plan from week to week based on the opponent. His players have played well within the structure of the scheme rarely giving up big plays no matter what has been asked of them. Some games stand out above others with things he has done to shut down opposing offenses.

Lea is often painted as a conservative coach who plays a “bend, but don’t break” style, but that doesn’t give him his due for the adaptability he shows each week. He’s done things like play a three high safety look against USC’s Air Raid or run a Bear front in Notre Dame’s Dime package that unleashed Julian Okwara at 3-technique against Clemson.


Those were notable, but these other four games in particular deserve mention for the way he changed his defense to attack and exploit a particular offense.

2018 Wake Forest

Wake Forest was by no means an offensive juggernaut in 2018, but they do run an offense that tends to give defenses problems. The delayed mesh they run on just about every play gives the quarterback options to wait and read a defense.

That concept helped them gash Notre Dame in the second half of their 2017 matchup with the Irish. The 6.67 yards per play was the highest number Elko’s defense gave up that season.

Lea, the linebacker coach for Wake in 2016, was not about to let that happen again when the two teams played in ‘18. He attacked the mesh consistently with blitzes early and often.

16 out of 32 non-garbage time first down plays were called blitzes for Notre Dame. Lea blitzed a safety 18 times. They didn’t allow quarterback Sam Hartman to patiently make his read. They forced the issue and Wake didn’t have an answer.

Out of 76 non-garbage time plays, the Irish had nine tackles for loss and had 16 plays that went for zero yards. Essentially ⅓ of the plays were for zero yards or less. They hit Hartman 21 times and he eventually was knocked out of the game while managing to only go 3 of 14 on 1st down throws.

2018 Syracuse

Syracuse averaged 3.2 yards per play overall in the game. Minus garbage-time they averaged 2.9. That’s pretty, pretty good against a Syracuse team that won 10 games and was considered to be a threat to spoil Notre Dame’s undefeated season.

An uptempo offense that came in averaging 85 plays per game ran only 45 on their first 11 drives and it was because Lea disrupted what head coach Dino Babers wanted to accomplish.

Notre Dame wasn’t a heavy blitz team, but again attacked with 14 blitzes. 11 of them were zone blitzes, something Lea hadn’t shown very much before this game.


He blitzed on 3rd down seven times and it produced six pressures and one sack. Lea clearly didn’t view the Syracuse running game as a threat and often only dedicated five in the box to stop them. That put the emphasis on coverage and made their passing game anemic.

Before the final garbage time drive, Syracuse quarterbacks went 11 of 29 for only 62 yards (2.14 yards per attempt). They managed only three points when Babers settled for a field goal to avoid being shutout at the end of the game.

2019 Virginia Tech

Lea knew that whether it was Hendon Hooker or Quincey Patterson, Virginia Tech was going to have to rely on the quarterback run to help them move the football. Lea combatted this with a five man front and played Jamir Jones and Ade Ogundeji a lot more in this game.

The only two big quarterback runs on the day were when cornerback Donte Vaughn passively approached tackling Patterson and when Okwara bit hard instead of feathering the zone read. (He later played it correctly and took the quarterback run away)

Knowing that Virginia Tech would be limited throwing the ball, Lea felt comfortable playing man to man with his corners contesting 50/50 balls. Other than an insane catch and run on a 52-yard play, that strategy ended up working out very well.

Tech only had nine completions. 16 of Virginia Tech’s rushes went for 2 yards or less. Six of their first seven drives were three and outs. They managed to only convert 25% of their 3rd downs.

Notre Dame’s offense blew opportunities in the red zone this game and the defense needed to be great to win. They were and only gave up 13 points on the day with 101 yards rushing.

2019 Iowa State

Iowa State came into the Camping World Bowl with an offense that ranked 16th in yards per play. They produced explosive plays through the air consistently. They averaged over 300 yards per game passing.

Lea’s defense shut them down and held the to almost two yards per play below their average (4.6 down from 6.58). ISU was the top scoring team in the nation in the second half, but managed only a field goal and 2.5 YPP after halftime.

Running back Breece Hall had his lowest yards per carry and total rushing yards as a starter. Quarterback Brock Purdy was pressured all game and still made some great throws, but Lea smartly took away his best option by either bracketing tight end Charlie Kolar or having Kyle Hamilton match up in man coverage.

Kolar, a Mackey award finalist and second-team All-American, had averaged four receptions per game. In this game he was only targeted three times.

Tommy Rees’ debut as a play-caller got the headlines after the game, but Lea’s defense set the table again by taking ISU’s top weapon away.

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