Defensive coordinators learn to give ground as era of offense explosion hits college football

DALLAS – Clark Lea sometimes jokes about having chosen the wrong side of the football.

“Obviously, it’s a lot more fun to be an offensive coach these days,” Notre Dame’s first-year defensive coordinator says, laughing – but he also wants you to know he’s only kidding.

“Defense,” he continues, “is a mentality. I love defensive football. The challenge is inherent.”

Maybe we should start here: It has probably always been more frustrating than fun to be a defensive coach. By definition, defensive statistics are negative: You’re measured by how often you fail. But in an era of college football that’s seemingly all about offense, failure has become so commonplace, it’s fair to wonder if resistance is futile. You pick the metric – we’ll go with points, because that statistic seems fairly important – and offenses are winning in a rout.

Clemson, Notre Dame’s opponent in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Cotton Bowl, averages 45.4 points, which ranks fourth nationally – and third in the College Football Playoff behind Oklahoma (49.5) and Alabama (47.9). Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s rapid development has elevated the Tigers’ potential from dangerous to devastating. It’s enough to make a defensive coordinator … marvel?

“Some of the offenses are incredible,” Lea says. “I mean, it’s fun to watch.”

He probably doesn’t mean Clemson, exactly. At least, not in the context of trying to stop the Tigers. But if the challenge is daunting, it’s hardly unique. And let’s stipulate: Notre Dame’s defense has been very good under Lea, who was promoted from linebackers coach last January after Mike Elko moved to Texas A&M. Notre Dame ranks eighth nationally in opponents’ yards per play (4.53) and 10th in scoring defense (17.3 points).

All of those are huge leaps forward from last season. None of those mean anything if those fast, talented Tigers get going. Which is why Lea’s background, which includes stints at Wake Forest, Syracuse, Bowling Green and South Dakota State, seems potentially relevant. This Notre Dame defense might have the talent to match up with Clemson’s playmakers. He’s coached at places where they didn’t.

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