How coach Clark Lea is adjusting to calling defense in Vanderbilt football spring practice

Clark Lea is not unfamiliar with being a defensive coordinator. It is, after all, the position he held for three years at Notre Dame before taking the head job with Vanderbilt football.

But what he has done this year — taking over the defensive playcalling while remaining the head coach — is a new gig that brings with it its own challenges and rewards. That's even more so with two new position coaches in the fold: cornerbacks coach Jamaal Richardson and safeties coach Melvin Rice.

During spring practice, which began March 19, Lea and the new defensive staff have been working on installing the new playbook, which he said consists of "bits and pieces" from what was already in place, in addition to elements of what he has done in the past.

"I'm investing more time, which I love it, and I'm having so much fun," Lea said after Tuesday's practice. "So it hasn't been any kind of burdensome . . . before the start of the day and after the finish, I'm doing something in one of my roles, and especially as we get this package built and we get it installed, that's taken a ton of my attention, but like I said, I'm having a blast with it. enjoying my time with the players."

For Lea's first three seasons with the Commodores, he had a separate defensive coordinator. Jesse Minter served in that role in 2021 before leaving for Michigan, then Nick Howell took over in 2022 and 2023. Howell was demoted to a position coach after Vanderbilt's 2-10 season in 2023, and he left to become the defensive coordinator at New Mexico. That prompted Lea to take more control over the defense.

"It's simplified a lot of things between the head coach and linebacker coach communication," linebacker Nick Rinaldi said. "So that's been good, and we're putting in a lot of new stuff. So it's been hard trying to transition to the new playbook, but it's been good because you're making more plays.

"They're two different people, Coach Howell and Coach Lea. And they're both very good coaches. I love playing with both. But Coach Lea looks at the game differently. And I think it works differently for different people. But for me, it works better because . . . it works well with my strengths."

In addition to the staff overhaul, Lea will be working with a combination of returning players and incoming transfers. Though most of the offense's top impact players left in the offseason, the defense was able to retain key pieces like linebacker Langston Patterson, cornerback Martel Hight and linebacker/safety CJ Taylor. In the transfer portal, the Commodores added linebacker/safety Randon Fontenette from TCU, cornerback Kolbey Taylor from Wyoming, edge defender Khordae Sydnor from Purdue and defensive lineman Zaylin Wood from Middle Tennessee.

Linebackers coach Nick Lezynski is one of the holdovers on the defensive staff, and he also worked with Lea at Notre Dame before joining Vanderbilt. That gives Lezynski a level of familiarity that has aided in the transition.

"It's very similar to how he is as a head coach. He's detailed, passionate and it's not only what we do, but it's how we do it," he said. "So he's really good at communicating what we're doing from a scheme standpoint, but obviously just as important is how we're doing, so he's very passionate about our style of play. And that's awesome because that carries over to everything that we do.

"There's an intent and there's a purpose to every drill. Every team period, every drill circuit that we do, every unit, period, there's a tension to everything so that kind of is the main theme across the board for him as both a head coach and as a defensive coordinator."

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Aria Gerson covers Vanderbilt athletics for The Tennessean. Contact her at or on Twitter @aria_gerson.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Clark Lea integrating defensive playcalling with Vanderbilt football