Tale of 2 defenses: The Brian VanGorder era vs. the Clark Lea era

NOTRE DAME, Ind. (WNDU) - The Notre Dame defense had more sacks in one series last week against Virginia than they had in the final four games of the Brian VanGorder era.

That was three years ago. WHME Sports Director Chuck Freeby was headed to Rome for his 25th wedding anniversary trip.

Rome was not, in fact, burning, and no longer is the Irish defense, rebuilt from the smoldering ashes left behind by VanGorder.

Three years ago, mighty Duke had become the third opponent to score more than 35 on the Irish defense, and enough was enough.

"Without getting into too many details, I think it was the teaching, the way it was taught, that I was looking for a change in the way the defense was being taught," Irish coach Brian Kelly said this week of his decision to move on from VanGorder as the defensive coordinator.

VanGorder, who started his Notre Dame career with a fist-pumping shutout of Michigan, was fired, and the Irish defense had to rebuild.

First, Mike Elko was brought in. When he left for more money at Texas A&M after a year, Clark Lea took the defensive helm with a steady hand.

"I have to do a good job of putting them in good positions, and I have to do a good job of accentuating their strengths and game planning. If I'm able to do that, I have complete faith in their ability to go out there and finish," Lea said before the season.

The players have responded. In all 18 games with Lea leading the Irish defense, Notre Dame has held its opponent to fewer than 30 points. That's the longest streak in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision.

"He's been a big influence in my life, even off the field," linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said. "I've known coach Lea since forever. So, even when I was in high school, I had a lot of deep conversations with him, heart-to-hearts. In coach Lea, [I] just have a person who's kind of like a father figure, in the role of a coach."

"He's definitely great guy," defensive lineman Julian Okwara said. "We love feeding off his energy, he brings energy to it, and we give it back. So, he's a great guy."

But it's more than being a great guy. It goes back to why Kelly fired VanGorder; he wasn't being a great teacher. Lea is.

"I think that that's what he's done a really good job at – regardless if it's a player with a lot of experience or a little experience. His consistency and his teaching approach has been really one where I think all levels have been able to adapt to it," Kelly said of Lea.

Lea is always looking to improve those teaching skills.

Last winter, he sat down with Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin. Lea wanted to talk to someone who has been able to maximize team effort, even in a different sport.

And when you realize Lea is a former baseball player at Belmont and that Corbin has won two national championships at Vanderbilt with teams based on pitching and defense, you can see where Lea is trying to learn one more lesson to convey to his students.