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Leftovers & Links: The ticking clock on Clark Lea’s time at Notre Dame

Clark Lea Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - APRIL 13: Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea greets his players prior to game action during the Notre Dame Football Blue and Gold Spring game on April 13, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A day after No. 2 Notre Dame earned the win of the weekend with its 31-17 worse-than-the-scoreboard-indicated win at No. 19 North Carolina, Vanderbilt offered the moment of the weekend when kicker Sarah Fuller became the first female to play in a Power Five football game with her boot to open the second half.

A day later, Vanderbilt became part of the Irish storyline and not just the national conversation when the university fired head coach Derek Mason in his eighth season, a campaign that reached a new low with a 41-0 loss at Missouri on Saturday, national and cultural breakthrough aside. The first name on Commodores athletics director Candice Storey Lee’s shortlist is presumably Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, a Vanderbilt 2004 alum.

Lea nearly did not reach his third year as Irish defensive coordinator, and fourth with the program. If not for former Ohio State defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, Lea would likely be leading Boston College these days.

Instead, he is directing the No. 9 unit in both scoring defense and total defense, among teams to have played at least four games. That success, in fact, is the obvious reason Lea is a hot commodity on the coaching market. Vanderbilt is the natural fit for someone who turned a baseball career into a football career there, but it will be far from the only possibility for Lea this winter. And given the Commodores’ football history, it may be far from the most desirable. Aside from James Franklin’s final two seasons in Nashville, 2012-2013, Vanderbilt has not posted a winning record since ... 1982.

But even with a presumed predilection for a Power Five program with an academic focus, Lea may have other options during this coaching carousel. David Cutcliffe, 66, is in his 13th season at Duke, this 2-7 faceplant making last year’s 5-7 look enjoyable. David Shaw’s 10th season at Stanford may be only 1-2 to date, but that makes the Cardinal 1-6 in the last 13 months and showing no signs of contending in the Pac 12 anytime soon. At some point, Dave Clawson will welcome an overture to leave Wake Forest, Lea’s previous employer.

Ignoring the odd prevalence of Davids at the schools that might entice Lea, what should be noted is he can be selective. Even if the financial repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic keep those other three gigs static in 2020, each is closer to opening up than not.

Ranking defenses by yards or points allowed does not factor in the opponent or playing style. San Diego State is 3-3, yet ranked No. 7 in scoring defense; Army’s triple-option ball control creates the No. 8 scoring defense.

Lea’s defenses have done more than that. Based on spreads and combined point total over/unders, Notre Dame has held its opponent to fewer points than expected in 24 of its 35 games with Lea leading the defense.

There are several issues with the impulsive want for the Irish to name Lea the coach-in-waiting behind Brian Kelly. It puts inherent if unspoken pressure on Kelly to conclude his tenure, it requires an ambitious and successful coach-on-the-rise to put his career on hold for an indefinite amount of time, and it alters the dynamics with the entire coaching staff.

Furthermore, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has made it clear he sees the coach-in-waiting as a tool to use rarely in only the most private of situations.

“The only circumstances under which I would do something like that is if I was absolutely certain about the head coach’s timetable, the timetable was soon, and I thought we had absolutely the right person to succeed the current head coach,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister earlier this month. “... In the circumstance where there’s any uncertainty about the head coach’s timetable, I’d never go down that road. I think that causes confusion in the program. I think it sends a mixed message to the kids and I think it can be destabilizing for the head coach.”

When Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson scored his eighth touchdown Saturday, you may have chuckled at the overlapping, though consonant-deficient, identification with Irish center Jarrett Patterson.

You should have been thinking of Notre Dame junior safety Houston Griffith, and not just because he stepped in on a moment’s notice and excelled in the Irish defensive dominance at North Carolina. Griffith’s father, Howard, holds the NCAA record with eight rushing touchdowns in one game, the mark Patterson tied.

Notre Dame head and shoulders over No. 19 HeelsThings We Learned, pt. i: Defense puts Irish firmly in conversation with Alabama, Clemson & Ohio StateThings We Learned, pt. ii: Defensive depth the difference between 2020 and all years prior

Vanderbilt needs a football coach. Who are the likely candidates?
Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller makes Power-5 college football history after giving halftime speech in her ‘goalkeeper voice’
Two feel-good moments save bleak weekend

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