2018 got off to a strong start for Notre Dame. The dramatic bowl win over LSU was truly one of the best moments for Notre Dame football since the Lou Holtz days. Ian Book’s performance off the bench and Miles Boykin’s incredible one-handed catch to win the game had Irish fans on cloud nine. A 10 win season and a New Year’s day bowl victory both seemed like great accomplishments that would build momentum for the program.
Then, less than 72 hours later, it all came crashing down. Despite consistently denying rumors during the bowl season, defensive coordinator Mike Elko left for a three year deal to become DC at Texas A&M. After taking Notre Dame’s defense from a laughing stock to a sometimes dominant unit, Elko was gone after just one season. At $1.8 million per season Elko is now the 2nd highest paid coordinator in the country behind only LSU’s Dave Aranda.
Now, many Notre Dame fans were quick to call Elko greedy and a traitor to his players. Initially, my reaction was to be a bit angry as well. However, if you step back and look at this situation from an objective perspective it was a smart move for Mike Elko. Yes, money was certainly a factor. However, when you compare going in to be a coordinator for a coach in the first year of a 10 year deal in Jimbo Fisher against Brian Kelly in year nine, it’s easier to see why Elko left. Texas A&M is unquestionably a more stable situation. Fisher will get at least three years to turn things around down there, and by that time Elko will probably have a head coaching gig. That’s not to say Brian Kelly can’t be at Notre Dame for another five years, but things could change much more quickly in South Bend than in College Station. Additionally, it’s a chance for Elko to prove himself in college football’s best division.
If the reports coming out about this situation are correct, Notre Dame refused to match Texas A&M’s $1.8 million offer. According to multiple reports, Notre Dame had already renegotiated with Elko to make him one of the top five paid assistants in the country. Once the number crept up to $1.8 million, Notre Dame respectfully declined to match the offer. Some may say this proves Notre Dame will never fully invest in football. I would argue that their renegotiation proves they are willing to invest quite a bit in the football program. On the other hand, Notre Dame is still principled and does not want to continue to spur on an arms race that would lead to assistants at top 25 programs making more than a lot of power five head coaches. Plus, there comes a point that if someone continues to renegotiate it’s clear they don’t have a strong desire to stay at Notre Dame.
Certainly, Elko’s departure is painful. It was obvious after just one season that Elko is one of the brightest defensive minds in college football. Replacing Elko will be a difficult task, but Notre Dame thinks they’ve found the man to do it. Today, linebackers coach Clark Lea was promoted to the position of defensive coordinator. Promoting a linebackers coach with no experience calling a defense may seem like a risky move, but it was the right move for three reasons: continuity, player development, and recruiting ability.
Having spent time with Mike Elko at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest, Clark Lea will continue to run his 4-2-5 defense. This is critical for Notre Dame. Lea will now be the 4th defensive coordinator in three seasons for the Irish. Constantly changing the defensive playbook can be extremely difficult on professional players, let alone college players who have to balance learning a defense with their academic load. Certainly, Lea will add his own wrinkles to the system and could prove to be either more or less aggressive than Elko was. However, the basic principles of the system will remain the same. Additionally, Notre Dame’s outstanding 2018 defensive class will get to play in the defense they were recruited to play in.
2. Player Development
One of the biggest complaints about Brian VanGorder’s tenure as defensive coordinator was the complete lack of player development. Talented players either couldn’t find the field due to confusion from the system or seemed to regress as the years went on. In just one year, Clark Lea was largely responsible for one of the biggest year to year improvements in recent memory. Te’Von Coney went from a player who could barely find the field, to an absolute playmaker. Coney led the Irish in tackles with 116 and tackles for loss with 11.5 despite only starting 7 games. Of course, Coney himself deserves much of the credit, but it was clear Lea was key to his development. Skip to the 5:10 of this video to see a great example of Lea coaching Coney.
A lot of coaches would let it go when they see a player having a tough time at practice. Clark Lea is the kind of guy that cares about his players and that has a major impact on their development. With the defensive recruiting class coming in, Notre Dame needed a coordinator that can bring the best out of his players and Lea can do that. As an added bonus, Lea could help Coney come back rather than declaring for the NFL Draft.
3. Recruiting Ability
I’ve already brought up the talent of this 2018 defensive class a few times, and what is the strength of that group? The linebackers. While Mike Elko and Brian Kelly certainly helped to bring in those players, Lea also played a major role in landing their signatures. The foursome of Shayne Simon, Jack Lamb, Matthew Bauer, and Ovie Oghoufo may be the most well-rounded linebacker group Notre Dame has signed in a single class under Brian Kelly. Clark Lea has proven he is willing to work hard on the recruiting trail and can land elite talent. While the loss of Elko on the recruiting trail will sting, Lea will bring the same tenacity as his predecessor. Some recent Notre Dame defensive coordinators have paid little attention to recruiting, don’t expect that from Clark Lea. He may not even be done yet for 2018, as dominant California linebacker Solomon Tuliapupu has consistently praised Lea.
Does losing Mike Elko still hurt? Absolutely. There’s a reason Texas A&M ponied up nearly $2 million per year to get him. It also would have been exciting to see the jump Elko’s defense would take in year two. However, among the replacement candidates, Notre Dame could not have done better than Clark Lea. Along with keeping the current system in place, he has already proven his abilities in recruiting and player development. As long as Notre Dame can add an experienced safeties coach, I am confident the defense will remain in a much better spot than it was from 2014-16.