Notre Dame Football

Lea Confident In His Unit Heading Into Cotton Bowl

December 26, 2018

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea hasn’t fully taken the time to look around and enjoy the atmosphere of the College Football Playoff since arriving in Dallas for Saturday’s Cotton Bowl game against Clemson.

He doesn’t plan on doing so and it doesn’t sound like it’s a decision he expects to regret down the road.

For Lea and the Irish, this is the cliché business trip.

“Arriving in Dallas and seeing all of the pageantry around the game and the history of the game and getting a feel for that has been fantastic,” Lea said during a press conference on Wednesday morning. “To be honest, we’ve been so moment-by-moment, you don’t have the luxury to have big picture thought process. It’s just, ‘Are we accomplishing what we need to do today to affect the 29th?’

“Though we’ve enjoyed arriving and being in Dallas and being with the Cotton Bowl folks, we’re also just narrowed in on what we have to accomplish.

Lea said the Irish’s first-ever trip to the College Football Playoff is the culmination of a journey that’s required physical and emotional sacrifice from the entire team. But they understand there’s plenty of work left to be done.

“These guys are going to be ready to play,” Lea said of his players. “Now, we’re going to use every moment we have from now until Saturday to prepare ourselves, but they are locked in. They are focused.”

And they’ll need to be heading into a matchup against the second-ranked Tigers.

“They are clearly as talented offensively as any team in the country,” said Lea. “They have a quarterback that can distribute the ball wherever he wants to. It’s really impressive with how quickly he releases the football.”

Lea referred to Lawrence as “exceptionally talented” and noted that he isn’t your typical freshman quarterback.

“His arm strength, his confidence in his arm are really impressive for a young player,” Lea said. “Even saying ‘young player,’ I feel like every game he’s played as a starter, you just see his maturation, you see his game evolving. You see his comfort level in the pocket. I can’t compliment him enough in just how impressed I’ve been with him.”

Sophomore running back Travis Etienne, who has rushed for 1,463 yards and 21 touchdowns on 176 carries this season, as good as any the Irish have faced this season, according to their defensive coordinator.

“He is a powerful, explosive runner,” Lea added.

It doesn’t stop there either with a quartet of receivers – Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, Amari Rodgers and Hunter Renfrow – that has combined for 176 receptions for almost 2,500 yards and 21 touchdowns.

“They have perimeter skill, that’s an explosive-play threat every time the ball is in the air,” Lea said. “Their offensive line and tight ends, I think, do as good of a job of block angles and creating spaces. They’re obviously really well coached.

“All of those things present unique challenges.”

Lea’s overarching challenge is putting his players in position to limit those pieces.

“Part of that is, ‘Can you get yourself in the right body position to tackle the running back? If you’re using your arms or you’re out of position, you’re going to have a problem,’” he explained. “Eye discipline and transition in the secondary is going to be important. We can’t give those receivers space. We have to take the space away.

“The quarterback presents his own challenges. He knows pre-snap where the open windows are. We have to do something to create a little indecision there if we can. Those are things that are important. At the end of the day, we’re going to have to execute really well to have the chance to neutralize the offense.”

Lea said his goal is to make his opponent “play left-handed.”

“How you take away their strengths or try to neutralize some of the things they do well,” he continued. “Can we neutralize the things we think Clemson does really well and at the end of the day, play fundamentally sound football?

“It’s been over a month since we played, so I think for us the three points of focus have been technique, execution and finish. Those three things we have to do really well Saturday.”

The month-long layoff between the regular season finale at USC and Saturday is a challenge in itself.

It offers Lea and other coordinators the opportunity to add some wrinkles, but it has to be a balance.

“I think that is one of the more challenging things,” Lea acknowledged. “I think as a coach, you can second-guess yourself even in the planning of how deep you go to change. The foremost goal is for us is that our players are playing with confidence.

“I think two things drive that. One is they know the plan is meant to take away the opponent’s strength. So, in that sense, you have room to maneuver a little bit. The other one is that they’re doing things that they’ve done and are confident in doing. It is a fine line and every day, I go back and forth in my mind about where line is. We’re in a good place now. The plan has kind of been well-grooved over a couple weeks, so we feel good about things heading into Saturday.”

A major focus of the last few weeks for Lea’s defense has been stressing the fundamentals that never change.

“Getting back to some of the things that are core tenets; bursting to the ball every snap, body positions on the finishes, making sure we’re focused on those things has been important,” he explained.

Making sure the players are properly conditioned is also a factor, taking into account the time between games as well as the energy level that comes with playing a game of this magnitude.

“These guys are really well-trained,” Lea said. “This is a really mature team. These guys don’t go into this type of environment and this type of game without awareness of what it’s going to take. No stage is too big for them. They’ve handled that part of this really well even to the point where the work we did back home leading up to this was as spirited and intense as we’ve had. It was incredible. I don’t concern myself so much with them pacing themselves through the week.

“As the game goes, it’s really going to be relying on the things we’ve had as core tenets all year in terms of expecting adversity, having a script for how we handle adversity. If things are going well for us, understanding that the opponent is going to counter punch and we need to be ready for that. Those are things we’ve had as part of our mantra the entire season and that will be no different on the 29th.”

Lea gave head coach Brian Kelly credit for making it clear the goal is to win, and not just one game, but two.

“I think Coach Kelly has put together a really good schedule,” said Lea. “I think different from other bowl games. It’s not been so much about depth development as it is preparing to win the game. Sometimes when you go into a bowl game, you’re looking to have another spring practice where you’re getting your young players in. This has been about preparing this team to be its very best on the 29th. I think within that spirit, we’ve neutralized some of that conditioning component.

“There will still be an element of getting our cleats in the ground early in the game and within that, it’s tackling on defense. How we tackle, our body positions at the finish. We’ve spent a ton of time on that. Those will be things we need to do well to have a chance to play our best Saturday.”

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