The 2021 season is the first for head coach Clark Lea, who became Vanderbilt’s 29th head coach in December of 2020. A Vanderbilt alum, Lea arrived in Nashville after serving as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator from 2018-20.
Lea returns to Music City having coached in nine bowl games, including two College Football Playoff appearances since 2018.
While at Notre Dame, Lea molded a defense that led the Fighting Irish to an appearance in the 2020 ACC Championship Game by finishing the regular season 10-0 and with a No. 2 national ranking.
Lea’s defense finished 2020 ranked eighth nationally in fumbles recovered (10), 12th in third-down conversions (31.4), 14th in scoring defense (19.7), 17th in rushing defense (113.0), 17th in tackles for loss/game (7.5) and 25th in total defense (343.6).
In their final game of 2020, the Fighting Irish held Alabama to 31 points in the Rose Bowl, marking the Crimson Tide’s lowest point total on the season and more than two touchdowns below its 11-game average of 49.7 points/game. It was also Alabama’s lowest point total since the national title game on Jan. 7, 2019, when it lost 44-16 to Clemson.
The No. 2 regular season ranking for the Fighting Irish was their highest since 2012 while Notre Dame claimed a 47-40 regular season victory against No. 1 Clemson. Lea was named one of 15 semifinalists for the Broyles Award, presented annually to the best assistant coach in college football.
Lea’s work with linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in 2020 resulted in him being the Butkus Award recipient, presented to the top linebacker in college football.
During the 2019 campaign, Lea’s unit finished in the top 25 nationally in fewest touchdown passes allowed (7, t-2nd), passing yards allowed/attempt (5.4, t-3rd), pass efficiency defense (100.8/4th), fewest plays of at least 30 yards (12, 4th), fewest plays of at least 40 yards (4, t-4th), fewest total yards/play (4.53, 8th), fewest plays of at least 20 yards (35, 8th), fewest touchdowns allowed (24, t-8th), fewest plays of at least 50 yards (2, t-8th), points allowed/game (17.3 t-9th) and total defense (331.5, 21st).
Lea’s defense was the backbone of the team’s top-25 success as it allowed just 15.0 points/game in its four matchups. The unit also held FBS teams with a winning record to 14.4 points per game, which ranked second nationally.
The 2018 defense guided Notre Dame to a College Football Playoff appearance against Clemson in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. The squad finished the regular season 12-0 and allowed just 18.2 points/game during the campaign while surrendering only 10 passing scores on the season. Lea’s red zone defense was ranked No. 11 nationally while the scoring defense finished 13th.
Prior to taking over as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, Lea served as the program’s linebackers coach in 2017 when the Irish allowed only four plays of 40 yards or longer and only one play of 50 yards or longer. His linebacker rotation of All-American Te’von Coney, team captain Drue Tranquill, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini all registered at least 75 tackles – a first in school history.
Before arriving in South Bend, Lea was Wake Forest’s linebackers coach in 2016, aiding a defense that ranked in the top 20 in fumbles recovered (third), turnovers forced (10th), sacks (12th), defensive touchdowns (17th), red zone defense (17th) and scoring defense (20th). With the Demon Deacons, he guided Marquel Lee to second team All-ACC honors with Lee finishing the year as the only FBS linebacker to record 100 or more tackles, 20.0 or more tackles for loss and 7.5 or more sacks.
He also spent three seasons (2013-15) as the linebackers coach at Syracuse, developing Zaire Franklin into an All-ACC product. In 2015 and as a sophomore captain (the fourth sophomore captain in school history and first since 1945), Franklin led the Orange in tackles (81) and was second on the squad in tackles for loss (11.0).
Lea worked at Bowling Green in 2012, helping assemble a Falcon unit that ranked sixth nationally in total defense (296.6) and 10th in scoring defense (16.7). That year, Lea was a finalist for Linebackers Coach of the Year by FootballScoop.com.
He began his career as a graduate assistant at UCLA in 2006 before moving to South Dakota State for two seasons (2007-08). Lea returned to UCLA as linebackers coach in 2010-11.
A Nashville native, Lea began his college career playing baseball at Birmingham-Southern, leading the club to an NAIA championship his freshman year. Lea then transferred to Belmont to play baseball in 2002 before finishing his career at Vanderbilt, playing fullback during his last two years of eligibility. Lea began as a walk-on before earning a scholarship with the Commodores. He earned both his undergraduate (2004) and graduate (2007) degrees from Vanderbilt in political science.
Lea and his wife Allison have two sons, Clark III and Jack, and a daughter, Mara.
Notre Dame – 2018-20 (Defensive Coordinator) • Architect of a defense that helped Notre Dame to a No. 2 national ranking and appearance in the ACC Championship Game in 2020, two years after qualifying for the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic … Helped the Fighting Irish to a 12-1 mark in 2018 with the lone loss to No. 2 Clemson in the CFP semifinals … During the 2019 campaign, Lea’s unit finished in the top 10 nationally in fewest touchdown passes allowed (7, t-2nd), passing yards allowed/attempt (5.4, t-3rd), pass efficiency defense (100.8/4th), fewest touchdowns allowed (24, t-8th), and points allowed per game (17.3, t-9th).
Notre Dame – 2017 (Linebackers) • Helped Notre Dame become the last team in the FBS to surrender more than 20 points as the Fighting Irish allowed only four plays of 40 yards or longer and just one play of 50 yards or longer … Notre Dame ranked first or second in the FBS in fewest completions allowed of at least 30 yards (second; nine), 40 yards (first; one) and 50 yards (first; zero).
Wake Forest – 2016 (Linebackers) • In lone season at Wake Forest, the Demon Deacon’s defense ranked in the top-20 of the FBS in fumbles recovered (third), turnovers forced (10th), sacks (12th), defensive touchdowns (17th), red zone defense (17th) and scoring defense (20th) … Wake Forest was one of four schools in the FBS to rank in the top-20 in turnovers forced, sacks and scoring defense … Lea was instrumental in the development of all-ACC linebacker Marquel Lee, who was the only FBS linebacker to post 100 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in 2016.
Syracuse – 2013-15 (Linebackers) • In three years with the Orange, helped develop Zaire Franklin to an all-ACC performer … In 2015, Franklin became the fourth sophomore captain in team history and led the Orange in tackles with 81 … Lea’s 2014 unit was one of four at the FBS level to surrender fewer than 10 rushing touchdowns while the 2013 defense finished within the top 20 nationally in third-down defense (15th), rush defense (24th), sacks (18th) and tackles for loss (18th).
Bowling Green – 2012 (Linebackers) • Key piece of a defense that finished the year ranked seventh in the country in pass defense, ninth in scoring defense and sixth in third-down defense while his linebacker unit featured a pair of All-MAC performers … A finalist for FootballScoop.com’s Linebackers Coach of the Year with his defensive group topping the Mid-American Conference in nine statistical categories.
UCLA – 2010-11 (Linebackers) • Helped Akeem Ayers to a Dick Butkus Award finalist finish in 2010 en route to being the 39th overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft … Work aided the Bruins to a Kraft Fight Hunter Bowl appearance in 2011 … Pupil Eric Kendricks eventually went on to be the 2015 Butkus Award winner and a second round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2015.
UCLA – 2009 (Graduate Assistant • Linebackers) • Lea returned to UCLA as a second-year graduate assistant and helped Reggie Carter to a team-high 79 tackles and Kyle Bosworth to 77 stops … The Bruins won the Eagle Bank Bowl over Temple as the defense ranked third in the league in total defense and scoring defense and was first in turnovers forced.
South Dakota State – 2008 (Linebackers • Recruiting Coordinator) • Added recruiting coordinator duties and helped the Jackrabbits to a 7-5 mark despite playing six teams ranked within the top 25.
South Dakota State – 2007 (Linebackers) • In first full-time coaching job, Lea’s three starting linebackers ranked among the top four tacklers in the league as South Dakota State won the Great West Football Conference championship … Two of Lea’s student-athletes were first-team all-league selections and the third was a second-team choice.
UCLA – 2006 (Graduate Assistant • Defense) • Began coaching career as a graduate assistant under Karl Dorrell, working primarily with the team’s linebackers.
The Lea File
Hometown: Nashville, Tenn.
High School: Montgomery Bell Academy
College: Vanderbilt (Political Science, 2004)
Graduate School: Vanderbilt (Political Science, 2007)
Children: Sons – Clark III, Jack; Daughter – Mara
2001 • Birmingham-Southern • Baseball
2002 • Belmont • Baseball
2002-04 • Vanderbilt • Football (Fullback)
2006 • UCLA • Graduate Assistant (Defense)
2007 • South Dakota State • Linebackers
2008 • South Dakota State • Recruiting Coordinator, Linebackers
2009 • UCLA • Graduate Assistant (Linebackers)
2010 • UCLA • Linebackers
2011 • UCLA • Linebackers
2012 • Bowling Green • Linebackers
2013 • Syracuse • Linebackers
2014 • Syracuse • Linebackers
2015 • Syracuse • Linebackers
2016 • Wake Forest • Linebackers
2017 • Notre Dame • Linebackers
2018 • Notre Dame • Defensive Coordinator
2019 • Notre Dame • Defensive Coordinator
2020 • Notre Dame • Defensive Coordinator
2006 • UCLA • Emerald Bowl
2009 • UCLA • Eagle Bank Bowl
2011 • UCLA • Fight Hunger Bowl
2012 • Bowling Green • Military Bowl
2013 • Syracuse • Texas Bowl
2016 • Wake Forest • Military Bowl
2017 • Notre Dame • Citrus Bowl
2018 • Notre Dame • College Football Playoff (Cotton Bowl)
2019 • Notre Dame • Camping World Bowl
2020 • Notre Dame • College Football Playoff (Rose Bowl)