SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly had to chuckle a bit when asked what he could tell a larger-than-normal media contingent about Devin Studstill, the true freshman and presumptive favorite to replace Max Redfield at free safety Sept. 4 against Texas.
“We’ll have a true freshman on the road playing against a talented team,” Kelly said with a bit of a laugh that, given the circumstances, sounded a bit nervous.
No matter how confident Notre Dame players and coaches are in Studstill, there’s still that unknown part of leaning on a safety who will play his first college football game in front of an exected sellout crowd of about 100,000 people in primetime at Darrell K. Royal Stadium in Austin.
Kelly described Studstill as a “natural” as the Florida native took first-team reps away from Redfield during spring practice. Linebacker and captain James Onwualu said Studstill’s transition back into the first-team defense has “gone smoothly” with only a handful of practices left until Notre Dame heads to Austin.
“He was here in the spring, which helped a lot,” Onwualu. “He came in ready to work from Day 1 and you gotta respect that. He’s been working his craft, working his game and there’s not much of a drop-off. He’s got a lot to learn. He’s still young, obviously, so (we) try to push some knowledge on him and continue to talk the game and show him as many looks (as possible).”
Kelly used “talented” and “confident” to describe Studstill this time around. But it won’t be just him at free safety, Kelly cautioned.
“I think we’ll have to play a few guys at that position,” Kelly said. “I don’t think he’s going to go out there and take every snap.”
At the top of that list: sixth-year graduate student Avery Sebastian, who broke a bone in his foot in Week 1 against Texas last year and missed the rest of the season. The 5-foot-10, 200 pound Cal transfer, who also missed nearly all of the 2013 season with an injury, started six games for the Golden Bears from 2011-2014.
In exchange for the experience Sebastian brings to the position, Notre Dame would slide a guy who’s more of an in-the-box strong safety over to free safety. The other options at free safety are freshman Jalen Elliott, a former four-star recruit, and sophomore Nicco Fertitta, who saw action on special teams last year.
Kelly said there haven’t been any conversations about moving an offensive player to free safety to manufacture more depth.
“We feel like we’ve got enough back there that we’ll be solid,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame’s defense is peppered with first-time starters, which creates plenty of unknowns heading into the 2016 season. In losing Redfield, a player who Kelly said was starting to put everything together after a few inconsistent seasons, another question mark was added to VanGorder’s defense.
That doesn’t mean that Studstill and whoever else is back at free safety are destined to fail. Maybe Studstill and/or Elliott clears their first-year hurdles and is a solid player and Sebastian winds up being a reliable option there, too.
But Notre Dame’s defense very likely was going to be better off with Redfield as a starting safety.
“Max was an outstanding player, and he was having a great, great camp,” Kelly said. “He had a great spring. He’s athletic, he’s fast. So you’re taking a really good player off your defense. But we’ll be able to plug in a guy there that I think will get the job done for us.”