I just got off the phone with new UCLA linebackers coach Clark Lea, who was promoted from his grad assistant position to fill the vacancy left by Carnell Lake. Lea coached the linebackers last season as Chuck Bullough moved up to the defensive coordinator position, and the two worked together as well in 2006, when Lea was a GA for DeWayne Walker.
Lea was linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator at South Dakota State in 2007 and 2008 and previously served as a football intern at UCLA and as a GA at Vanderbilt, where he played from 2002-04. Lea is a young (28), fiery guy, and he played a big role in the recruitment of several top linebackers, including Aramide Olaniyan and Eric Kendricks.
Check out the interview after the jump…
How did the process move so fast?“First of all, this is my second tour of duty here – along the way I’ve built some great relationships here and really found a home here at UCLA. I’m very comfortable with the university and staff. The second thing is, when I came back a year ago to work for Chuck Bullough, I knew exactly what he was about. He taught me the trade when I was coming up younger. For all intents and purposes, I was coaching the position for a year now. From Coach Neuheisel’s perspective, it just lends itself to a seamless transition. It’s going to be easy. I know this system in and out. I was in with Coach Walker in 2006 and the tweaks since then, I’ve been here for. I’m just really fortunate and I work for a great guy – it’s humbling he would choose to promote me.”
Obviously the lifeblood of a program is recruiting; are you going to be assigned a specific area? Will your Vanderbilt ties help in the South?“I will definitely have an area in California and as a younger coach and as a guy who kind of prides myself on building relationships, I’m actually really, really excited. That’s probably the biggest change for me. I was recruiting coordinator at South Dakota State and I take pride in great relationships. As far as long-distance recruiting, we do a lot of that based off spot. We go to where the top players are. Certainly with my ties in the southeast, I’d imagine I’ll be involved. With a guy like Aramide Olaniyan, I had a big hand in that and did everything except go see him. I told Coach Neuheisel, you can use me in any way you see fit. If he wants me to go to Alaska, I’ll go to Alaska.”
Last year’s unit was very experienced, this year’s is not-“I made the comment last year that Chuck Bullough hired me and gave me the easiest job in the country. He had Reggie and Boz (Kyle Bosworth) so trained up that it was just a matter of not screwing it up. The thing we get now is a lot of healthy competition for those jobs. The thing maybe we lacked a little of last year was that element of personal competition. That certainly will not be lacking this year. This is going to be a great spring for us, and it’s going to be a great spring because we are going to compete.”
Which players will you rely on?“I do have some guys like Steve Sloan who’ve been on the battlefield before. I’m going to lean on his leadership. Akeem Ayers who’s growing up and improving. Very pleased with the progress he’s made. Sean Westgate who’s a true junior and who’s done some big things on special teams is eager to get his shot and mix it up. Above all else, we are going to compete for this thing.”
Why is that competition important?“When you have positional competition, you are ultimately competitive from top to bottom. To get guys in who are going to push the guys ahead of them. Our selling point to recruits is, ‘Hey , we’re going to bring you in to compete with the older guys, and then the next year, we’ll bring someone in to compete with you.’ The mindset is you can never take a position for granted. You can’t just sit back and assume that everything you’re doing is going to get you that position. You have to go out and beat someone out for it. In life, when someone’s chasing you, you run a little faster.”
How about this new class, which features several highly rated guys?“I’ve had a chance to talk to a number of those guys today and they’re excited to know I’m going to be here with them and watch them develop in their career. The thing we did this winter in terms of recruiting this position is we found guys who are not only great players, but fantastic people. They are guys who are going to rise to the occasion. Each of those guys came and signed on the dotted line with the idea that, ‘I’m going to come to UCLA and I’m going to make that program great.’ There’s a lot of progress that needs to be made. With every success there’s going to be some failure. Time will tell – but these guys are great kids, they’re great players and I’m going to push them day in and day out.”
One of UCLA’s biggest, if not the biggest, weakness last season was tackling. How can you address that?“It’s a defensive philosophy that tackling is perhaps the most important thing we do. We talk about mental toughness and physical toughness, but at the end of the day, you can’t be a great defense unless you tackle. That’s a mindset we share throughout the defensive staff room. All the great linebackers are great tacklers. We teach it technically and drill it every day. To get your body in the right position, to have great points of leverage – those are things we’re going to do every day. But we also want to punish. We want to finish plays and be known as a physical defense. That’s a mantra of our unit – we are going to out-physical the opponent and play tough and play hard. That’s where I come from.”