Off-Season Talk: Coach Clark Lea

In our continuing series of off-season interviews, BRO sits down with new linebacker coach Clark Lea, who talks all about the opportunity, and runs down the skill and development of many of the linebackers under him...

Well, when you look at the players that you're losing and the inexperience coming back, this is either the best time or the worst time to be a first-year linebackers' coach …

‘'Well, you know, the first thing to say is working here is the best and I couldn't be more excited and really and truly am excited for the competition. That aspect of this spring is going to be a lot of fun and we're going to go out there and battle it out. These guys are going to have a lot of fun battling with each other. We're all going to make each other better. And, so, I think, though, we lost a lot. We lost Reggie (Carter), we lost (Kyle Bosworth). But we have a great group of young guys, a group that obviously needs to gel and develop and become game ready. But that's what the spring is for and I think what we get this year in positional competition will certainly benefit us in the long run. You know, it's an excellent time to be here … excellent.''

When you look at those guys, I know (Steve) Sloan played a little bit and didn't play much last year. Akeem (Ayers) is a fixture, but it's not just the Mike ... you have a lot of spots to fill.

‘'Absolutely, and the game experience between Reggie and Boz that we lose is tremendous. But that's not to say that we can't go out and fill those shoes without missing a beat. The thing that these guys need to realize is whoever the guy who is going to be that Mike linebacker is not going to be Reggie Carter and whoever is going to be that Will linebacker is not going to be Kyle Boz. But whoever those individuals are can be the best that they can be and the guys we have on our roster now have every bit of talent to excel in the Pac-10 and be great players.

‘'I think from a fans' perspective there's going to be a lot of excitement because you're going to get to see these guys play that you've heard about, that you remember from recruiting, that you've kind of tracked but really haven't got a great feel for, you're going to get to see those guys go out there and compete, and we are a long way away from the fall and so there's a lot of development to be done. ‘'But I would imagine by the time we tee it up, it's going to be a group of three polished guys that have all of the preparation they need to excel. And, again, you look at Akeem Ayers, a guy that obviously has steadily improved since he's been here and last year really I think came into his own at the end of the year. He and I talked and he has a lot to work on yet, but he's working on it and he's working on it conscientiously. You've got Steve Sloan, who in 2008 was asked to fill a role on the defense as a starter and did a great job, is a really heady player, and a guy that knows his limitations and is working on those. He has extensive special teams experience, which for a linebacker group is what you want, guy who want to get out there and mix it up. You've got Sean Westgate, who is going to be a true junior, been a special teams star, and towards the end of the year we got him in some nickel and some of our third-down packages because he's just a guy you want on the field. He's a competitive guy. He's a little undersized, but he's going to scrap and, I mean, he is itching, dying, to get his chance. And then Patrick Larimore, some of the other guys that are maybe a little less game proved as far as special teams and things go, are as anxious as any. Again, the thing you get when you get a group of guys that is motivated and working hard, the bottom pushes the top and so you get a situation where every individual within that group improves because of it. That's what I'm excited to kind of see unfold, that competition. It will be really exciting.''

Going down that list, let's start with an easy guy … Akeem, it seemed like at some point last year he really figured some things out. How did that process go with him?

‘'Well, first of all, the foundation was laid by Coach (Chuck) Bullough. When I inherited Akeem, you know, he had been coached in a way to where you started to see that diamond in the rough expose itself. The thing Akeem had to do, that I had to help him do, is get comfortable being an every down player and to have the knowledge, to go into the game with the knowledge, to understand what we're trying to do schematically and how we're trying to do to defeat the opponent … not just his responsibility, but how it fits into our picture, and then how it is going to play against the opponent.

‘'That's a teaching thing, and something I try to do. Certainly I've been around some great teachers, from my own educational background, but also in coaching. As you spend as much time as you can in that football classroom really making sure they have it to take onto the field, and then once they're on the field, you coach them there, too, it's a teaching opportunity again.

‘'And, so, what I tried to do with Akeem as the year went on is, first of all, understand our defense schematically and what we're asking him to do, and second of all trust his instincts as a player. There are some guys that you really have to work to develop them athletically, you know, that maybe that's where they need to most work. They're smart players, but maybe a step slow or can't accelerate as good or bend as well. Akeem is not that kind of guy. You can see naturally he's a fluid athlete – he can run, he can jump, he's tall, he's heavy, he's all those things. But that does you no good unless you understand what you're trying to get done.

‘'I think the progress you saw was first of all, mental maturity and maturing into a young man. He's 20 years old now and I told him, ‘Hey, at 20, it's time to be a man.' That was part of it, but also maturing in the defense, like I said. Once he got comfortable with what we were trying to do and what we were asking him to do, he really took off, and I was really pleased with how he finished the year, yet still left unsatisfied. And I told him that. The first conversation we had, I told him, ‘Hey, there are going to be all kinds of people out there telling you how good you are, but you and I both know how good you could be' and let's work towards that.''

Meld all that together. Going into the spring, in the spring, over the summer, what are the things that he needs to do moving forward?

‘'Well, you can always get better athletically and there are subtle improvements that can be made, and I'm talking about the efficiency with which he moves, the footwork and the fundamental stuff. Those are things that he can continue to work on his own and improve. His understanding of the defense conceptually is going to improve because he's going to get more repetition and he's grown older and he's matured within it. But you can never get too much, so there will be improvement there as well.

‘'And, again, the idea to understand your role within the defense, as opposed to just what your job is, there's another aspect there, another element there.

‘'I think thirdly, and most importantly, is to grow into a leadership role. I think that pushes you to two things – if you're going to be a leader, you have to know it well enough to teach it and once you know it well enough to teach it, you know it, and until you've had to do that, you don't really know it that well; and then the second thing is, you take on a mentor role where you've solidified yourself as a guy that can be looked upon on and off the field, leaned on in tough times, and a guy the staff can rely on as well as the teammates. That brings out the best in you, too. It takes a special guy and that's what I think our work is now, getting Akeem to really go after that role.''

Was there a sequence or a game last year where you knew that he had turned that corner?

‘'I don't know that there was a particular moment in the season. But, you know, as we kind of went and as we got … I guess, the meetings on Sunday after the games. Usually I'll meet with the group and if I need to I'll hold a couple guys over and talk to them about some things because, look, these kids are in transitional times in their lives and this is a big stage. Sometimes you have to slow it down and you may be hard on them on game day and in the meeting with the group, and then need to pull them aside after, put your arm around them and say, ‘Hey, this is what we're trying to get done.'

‘'And, so, those meetings became less and less frequent. Whether I noticed it at the time, I realized that I was starting to become more congratulatory towards his effort, towards his ability to make plays, his production. We looked at that and that's something we harped on for years, you know, you're playing all these snaps and yet you're not really that productive as a player. How can we get that better? What do we need to do? And, so, somewhere around halfway through the year those conversations became less and less and then, reflecting on the year, you can certainly see it, you can certainly see the development.

‘'And I can't emphasize enough, though, it wasn't like at the end of the year we were 100 percent – he's there. There's still a lot left and a lot to be desired, but a guy that we're real excited about, obviously.''

I think you sense that there is a lot still there. You talk about continuing to mature and grow and about being that guy …

‘'And that is every bit as important off the field as it is on. He is doing this offseason working hard and doing some great things to improve and be accountable, and we're excited about that.''

With the Mikes, where do you see that starting off this spring?

‘'Well, I think those are discussions that will (come). Right now we're going through cut ups from last season and kind of figuring out where we are at personnel wise and what we need to work on, and then at the end of this month, in the next couple of weeks I'd say, we'll probably hammer out a depth chart and really get a feel for where we want to see guys and how we want to see them.

‘'Right now, I'd be maybe speaking a little premature, but obviously you've got Steve Sloan, who has started before, and he is the elder statesman so to speak. He is the older guy. You can anticipate seeing him rolling through there early. And with Patrick Larimore being a guy who has had a year, two years now here, and so he's getting to know the system and he's going to push Steve and they're going to compete, and then Todd Golper being a guy that is also in that mix, a guy that we're looking to continue to develop. It's a tough position to fully grasp, though, in your first year because we ask the Mike to do a lot. You saw how Reggie played and how he controlled things. It does take some time to get there.''

With Steve Sloan, no question he knows the defense, that part of it. But it seems the physicality part, that's somewhere where he can improve …

‘'He's a very heady player and a guy that knows not only the defense in and out but understands what the offense is trying to do, which is so important, and we need that presence out there at Mike. And so whoever it's going to be has got to be that kind of guy. You know, physically, Steve, he knows where he is limited and so this offseason he is really full-steam ahead in terms of working in those areas and I've been really impressed by how he's approached the offseason. He's cut some weight from where he was in the fall, a lot of lean muscle build … just really having a nice offseason.

‘'Again, these guys work their tails off for the opportunity to play on that stage and so it's every bit as important to him as it is to anybody and he's a guy who is really busting it right now to put himself in a position to compete for that job.''

The limitations with him, are they primarily physical?

‘'You know, with all these guys there are things we tell them physically to work on. But, sure, as a general rule, we talk about moving efficiency and footwork and we talk about the ability to change speeds and accelerate in order to finish plays. And he is a tough kid – he likes sticking his face in there, he likes mixing it up. But the technical aspects that allow you to be really good at those things takes some work in the offseason. How is your hip explosion? How is your pad level? Those are things he can work on now. But I would have to say this, those are things that really I'm on every one of those guys to work on. It's not necessarily unique to him, it's just that guys are at different levels of development.''

Patrick Larimore, I talked to him near the end of the season, just about trying to really ‘get' everything between then and the start of the spring. Is that even possible?

‘'Pat was in all of our meetings through the fall. He wasn't a scout team guy, he was in our room. His role last year limited itself to him really learning more than doing. And that's good and bad. Obviously some guys learn best by doing it. But it gives them a head start in terms of just, ‘Hey, I've got a great understanding, now let me go play.' He's done a great job. I would expect him to continue to push mentally in this offseason on his own to work at his understanding and leadership skills and all those things. But I'm excited to watch him cut loose and really get out there and mix it up.

‘'For a young guy like that to be, at this point in his career, to be able to compete for that job is really special and I would anticipate that his energy and his effort will reflect that opportunity.''

This might be something that is unique to individuals, but can a person learn it without actually doing it, without being able to walk through or be out there?

‘'When you teach football, it's no different than teaching calculus, teaching history or whatever the case is. It really is unique to the individual. With some guys, if you're teaching them a math problem, they can see it on the board and grasp it. Some guys actually have to work through the formula to really understand it. I don't know if that's the best analogy, but I guess to answer your question, there are guys who are really good in the classroom, who can recall, get on the board and draw the formations, draw all the players, understand, and they learn off the presentation. There are guys who are more conducive to learning off the film. So, you know, I present a scheme and then I show it on film, and that's another learning tool or teaching tool. And then there are guys that actually learn by doing it. ‘'Pat, he was in a situation this year, where he did rep in practice and rep a bunch. That's where the bowl practice comes in. It's so critical for a guy like that because we were really able to work him, and were pleased with his progress through the year, too.

‘'It is unique to the individual. But Patrick, he is classroom smart. He can take what we go through in the meeting room and he can go out on the field and recall what we talked through. I'm sure that at times the games will move a little fast we he gets acclimated, but that's where the repetition experience will help him. I'm sure through the spring it will slow down and the pieces of the puzzle will start to fit together for him and he will really have a great grasp of what's going on.''

Todd Golper, he's obviously the youngest of that group, but where do you see him?

‘'Todd is such a conscientious worker and a guy that, to be honest with you, as a player that is redshirting, has done a tremendous job picking up the defense. He really has. I've been impressed with him. He's a guy that's going to get in there and get his reps and we'll see where he's at in terms of his development. You know, obviously, it takes time and so it's really hard to comment on where he is right now because he spent the fall really working with the scout team. We'll get him out there and get him going and see where he's at, and that's where my job becomes critical. How soon can he be ready? I've got to find where his buttons are that need to be pushed and work with him that way.''

With Sean Westgate, is there a key to succeeding as an undersized player at his position?

‘'Gotta eat. And he would tell you the same thing. I don't think I pass by Sean Westgate without asking him what he weighs. It can't just be fast weight, either, it has to be sustainable weight. But beyond that, there are things inherent in being an undersized guy when you're as quick as he is and as good in space as he is that are really going to help him play.

‘'Those are his competitive advantages. It's not necessarily going in and slugging it out every play. He's got to be able to do that in some circumstances. But also he has to go out there his game and use his speed and his agility to his advantage and have success in that regard. There's a fine line there. Obviously he's got to get heavier, but you don't want him to get weighed down to where he's slow because, again, Sean's competitive advantage other than just being the competitor that he is and the hard-nosed player that he is, is that he is a quick guy and he can use his speed and his elusiveness to his advantage.''

Another guy that I wanted to ask about is Glenn Love. When I was walking in here, he was out at Spaulding on his own, working on his footwork and some hand technique … What is it about him that you guys saw that he can play in that front seven?

‘'Well, you know, as a strong safety you're asked to play in the box a good deal against two-back sets. He has the ability to be physical, and obviously he's athletic. And with his frame, a guy that you can add weight on and you hope that he can really get in there and slug it out. There are things that are enticing about that would lend themselves to being good in the box and really and truly, I mean, whether it's at safety or linebacker, those guys are asked to fit the run just like we are. Obviously, his coverage skills are excellent because he's been at the back end covering. Now, in the interior, in the box, movement is a little different, pad level is a little different. Those are things that will be kind of difficult that he'll have to work on.''

From that aspect, what kind of transition do you think he'll have?

‘'We'll have to see. In terms of his understanding of the defense, he's ahead of the game, because he's been through it. In his role as a safety, he understands how the pieces fit, he understand conceptually what we're trying to get done. As a coach, you try to use that perspective the best you can to accelerate his learning at linebacker, and so there are methods that I can do that to help him advance. But I think, really, we'll kind of find out once we strap it on and get him out there and see how he plays. He's a guy that is going to work his tail off to get in the mix, and he should. He should be right in there because he's an older guy and he's done it, he's played on the big stage, he's got game experience, and he's a guy that can add a lot of value to any position group that he's with.''

Well, the guy has always had that million-dollar body, but …

‘'Sure. In a lot of respects, too, it's continuing to teach him how to use it and in terms of his change of direction and things like that, which he has done a great job with, just continuing to let him improve his football athleticism, football movement, and we're excited about it.''

You mentioned his frame. Where would you like to see him for the start of fall camp? He's, what, 220 pounds or so?

‘'Right now, I think he's about 215, so he's a little light. Obviously, I'd like to see him be able to add 10 pounds about as fast as he can. And then from there, again, weight is unique to the player. Let's see how he carries it, see how he's moving and then maybe place a ceiling for the fall. You don't want to jump the gun and say, ‘He's got to be this …' and then all of a sudden you've taken away some things that really make him who he is. It's a wait-and-see kind of approach, but obviously with his size he should be able to put 10 pounds on and really not look very much different, not move very much different. He has the ability to hold it.''

Do you go into it figuring when the fall comes, you'll be reshuffling the deck a little?

‘'To me, the more competition there is the better. And so I think that when the spring wraps up, I don't think anyone is going to feel necessarily comfortable in their role, but that's what you want, and you want them to have to push through the summer to make sure. Again, I think that's where that bottom-up competition is where you really can get guys to improve rapidly. To me, every day is a chance for those guys to show who they are, first of all, and then how they're getting better.''

You guys have had to play some guys, really, before maybe they were physically ready to play at this level, just out of necessity. Do you see that still being the case?

‘'I think in a lot of respects, and just speaking from my position maybe and my mentality, is if you can redshirt a guy, the fifth year becomes so much more valuable than that first. And if you've really got enough depth and certainly we've got some good depth at linebacker although their unproven players so to speak, we're excited about them. You would like to have the opportunity to redshirt some of those guys. But at the same time, as a coach, you're kidding yourself or putting yourself at a disadvantage if you're not playing the best. Those guys are being told to come in and compete and let the chips fall, not to think that they're automatically out of it. I want their engines revving this summer and getting after it, and hitting the ground running when fall camp starts.''

No offense, but I was talking to Chuck (Bullough) a few weeks ago, and just given the youth of the group, I asked him if he might go back to coaching the linebackers. He proceeded to tell me five different ways how you were the best guy for that job. But I keep going back to the youth, the inexperience, being ready for that challenge in getting them coached up. …

‘'My mentality is there are results that you want and there are efforts that go into producing those results, and they're directly correlated. Again, I've always kind of leaned on the fact that, you know what, what I don't know I'll learn, and I won't be outworked. That's my approach.

‘'Now, do I contend to have all the answers? Absolutely not. But I'm always searching. That hasn't failed me yet. And, I think beyond that, there's room for young guys to be good coaches to and I think it's all about what's important to you. This is my livelihood. I could have done a million different things after finishing Vanderbilt, finishing a master's degree at Vanderbilt, and I chose this because this is my passion. I feel lucky every day I come to work, whether it's as a G.A. or a fulltime coach. To be honest with you, it doesn't matter. That's semantics. What matters to me is the chance to get in there and mix it up, to have an impact on these kids and to use my experience.

‘'Though it's not 30 years and eight stops in the NFL, my experience still makes me who I am and it still makes me a good coach and I lean on that, I believe that with all my heart. I can reach these kids. I have a voice to reach them. I've got the energy to hang with them, to run with them, and to be out there on the field and have energy and mix it up with them. And I'm excited about doing that, in an elevated state, and beyond that, trust in the fact that, though the answer may not be on the surface, I won't stop working until I find it.

‘'I'm so lucky to be in a room with guys like Chuck Bullough, who played the position at a very high level, who was my mentor in the business and really taught me the trade and is a great defensive coach; with Tim Hundley, who has got years and years of experience and is a guy I've grown real close with; and obviously Todd Howard, too, who I knew previously. We all have unique ideas and we all bounce those ideas off each other and try to find the best answer possible.

‘'But, my youth, to me, is an advantage. Even in coaching these young guys to develop, I won't rest. I'm too young to rest. If I wasn't going this I'd be doing something and I'd be bored to death. OK. I wanted something to use my energy every day. This is what I do. That's how I approach developing these guys.''

Is the teaching part the passion? Is it the game itself?

‘'I think that there are really three parts, and you want to be as good as you can in all three parts. There's definitely a teaching element, and I'm talking about players that are on our team now. I mean, obviously recruiting is huge and my role in recruiting is going to be huge in terms of, it's huge to me. I can't wait to get out there and get on the road and making inroads. ‘'But as far as the players here, you want to be a great teacher, you want to find the methods that really reach the kids to where they're learning at a high level in the classroom.

‘'You want to be a great football coach – on the field, intense, energy, enthusiastic, creating an environment where guys are excited to come to practice every day and also an environment where they know they are going to be held accountable. That's exciting, too, and you want to be great at that.

‘'And then the third thing is as a mentor, and really I don't see any of those three that are any less important than the other. I mean, like I said before, these guys are at various stages of development to where they're trying to transition into adulthood and it's my job to help them with that. There are challenges they face off the field that are as important to them as what an opponent is doing on 3rd-and-4 to 6, and so investing in that area, too, is important to me. I want these guys when they finish here to feel like, ‘You know what, football aside, I had the best experience I could ever have at UCLA. I grew tremendously, and I'm going to be excited to support this school and support this program for years and years to come.

‘'Those three elements – teaching, on the field and then off the field – that's where my passion lies and those are the things that I get excited about. Sometimes people don't understand it, but that's who I am. I can't help it.''

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