Clark Lea, who became Vanderbilt’s 29th head coach in December of 2020, enters his third season at his alma mater in 2023.
The 2022 season saw the continued development of Vanderbilt football, as the Commodores more than doubled their win total from the season prior and won multiple Southeastern Conference games for the first time since 2018, three years before Lea’s return to Nashville.
“Team 2” developed an identity that saw Vandy play disciplined football, maximize possessions and protect the quarterback. The Commodores were the least penalized team in the SEC, drawing just 63 flags. Vanderbilt has been among the nation’s top-30 least penalized teams in both seasons under Lea. Vanderbilt also ranked 21st nationally in time of possession (32:03) and has averaged over 30 minutes of possession per game in both seasons under Lea’s direction.
The Commodores scored four defensive touchdowns in 2022, a figure that led the SEC and ranked fourth in the country. That development came after Vandy failed to score a defensive touchdown in 2021.
In addition to creating turnovers, the Dores protected the football on offense. Vanderbilt quarterbacks threw just six interceptions on the year, second-fewest in the SEC and 12th-fewest nationally. Season-over-season, Vandy sliced its number of interceptions in half after throwing 14 picks in 2021. Signal callers were supported by an offensive line that allowed 1.25 sacks per game, fourth in the SEC and an improvement of 1.08 per contest over 2021. Vanderbilt was one of 10 Power 5 programs to reduce its sacks per game rate by more than one per contest from 2021 to 2022.
All of that added up to Vanderbilt earning its first SEC win since 2019, first Power 5 win since 2018, first SEC road win since 2018, first win over Florida since 2013 and first home victory over the Gators since 1988. With five victories, Lea posted the second-highest win total of any second-year Vanderbilt coach since 1975. These accomplishments came while navigating the fifth-toughest schedule in the nation (FEI ELS ranking), with the Commodores facing four Associated Press top-10 teams, including three consecutive for the first time in program history.
Off the gridiron, the Commodores achieved in the classroom. Vanderbilt earned the annual Academic Achievement Award from the American Football Coaches Association thanks to a 100 percent graduation rate in the latest data. It marked the fifth time Vanderbilt captured the honor since it was instituted in 1981. Additionally, four Commodores were named Academic All-District by College Sports Communicators. Vanderbilt had never had more than two CSC Academic-All District selections in the same season.
In 2021, Lea’s debut “Team 1” set the foundation for the program while ending several inherited streaks. The Commodores won for the first time in 11 games in Lea’s second game as head coach, a victory at Colorado State which also snapped a 10-game skid on the road. Vandy followed with a victory over UConn at home, the first home win in nearly two years.
The season saw Vanderbilt grow in all facets. The Commodores were the only team in the SEC to feature four players with multiple interceptions during the regular season, while as a team, Vandy had eight consecutive games with an interception, matching the longest such streak since 1996. Offensively, Vanderbilt grew in its ability to find the big play and maintain possession as the season went on. In the season’s penultimate game at No. 10 Ole Miss, Vanderbilt ran 93 plays, the most since 2010, while holding the ball for 38:57, its biggest advantage since 2018, and completing seven passes of 20 yards or more. Kicker Joseph Bulovas was twice named SEC Special Teams Player of the Week, making a game-winning field goal in the closing seconds on both occasions.
Linebacker Ethan Barr led all SEC players at his position with three interceptions, while the team’s 13 interceptions made Vandy one of just three teams in the league to average better than an interception per game. Vanderbilt was the third least-penalized team in the SEC and ranked No. 19 nationally in fewest penalty yards per game, while the Dores also led the league in fourth-down conversion percentage.
Holding two degrees from Vanderbilt, Lea arrived in his native Nashville after serving as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator from 2018-20. He returned to Music City having coached in 10 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 conversion percentage (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 of 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. Notre Dame also claimed a 47-40 double-overtime victory against No. 1 Clemson. Lea was named one of 15 semifinalists for the Broyles Award, presented to the best assistant coach in college football.
Lea’s work with linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in 2020 resulted in Owusu-Koramoah 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), fewest points allowed/game (17.3 t-9th) and total defense (331.5, 21st).
Lea’s defense 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 while surrendering only 10 passing scores during the campaign. 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 a second-year graduate assistant in 2009 and was named 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), fewest passing yards allowed/attempt (5.4, t-3rd), pass efficiency defense (100.8/4th), fewest touchdowns allowed (24, t-8th), and fewest 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 Lea’s lone season at Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons’ 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 more than 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-Mid-American Conference performers … A finalist for FootballScoop.com’s Linebackers Coach of the Year with his defensive group topping the MAC 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 Hunger Bowl appearance in 2011 … Pupil Eric Kendricks eventually went on to be the 2014 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, Tennessee
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
2021 • Vanderbilt • Head Coach
2022 • Vanderbilt • Head Coach
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)