SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Isaac Rochell joked he’s known sixth-year Irish graduate student Avery Sebastian for “like 10 years, since he’s been in college for like 10 years.”
The Notre Dame defensive end teamed up with Sebastian way back in the fall of 2010 when the pair both played for Eagle’s Landing Christian High School in the Atlanta area. Rochell is now a senior captain, but is by no means the oldest guy on the team — that would be Sebastian, who enrolled at Cal in 2011.
“Every day with mess with Avery about his age,” Rochell said. “… One thing (defensive coordinator Brian) VanGorder always says is a player isn’t his best until he’s 25. Avery’s not 25 — but we’re always like, that’s Avery right now.”
Gentle ribbing aside, Notre Dame will be counting on the elder statesman of its defense quite a bit when it takes the field Sunday night to face Texas at Darrell K. Royal Stadium in Austin. Freshman Devin Studstill may be Notre Dame’s free safety of the future, but in the present, Kelly & Co. are turning to Sebastian — a more natural in-the-box strong safety — to replace dismissed two-year starter Max Redfield.
“He's assignment correct, he makes very few errors, and that's what we like,” Kelly said. “We have two performers back there in (Drue) Tranquill and Sebastian that are assignment correct.
“Now, do they have the range maybe at times that we'd like? Probably not. But they do a lot of really good things for us, and they can play the kind of defense that we need to to be successful. So where maybe they lack some of the range of the younger players who will play and play considerable roles, they're rock solid and they're veteran players.”
The back end of Notre Dame’s defense has been plagued by errors over the last two seasons, which directly contributed to opponents racking up 30 plays of 30 or more yards against the Irish in 2015 (85th in FBS). Redfield and Elijah Shumate were an athletic duo but committed far too many errors in VanGorder’s complex scheme.
So Tranquill and Sebastian represent a departure from Redfield and Shumate in the sense that Notre Dame could be trading recruiting stars for fewer communication errors. It’s perhaps not ideal — having Redfield, who was formally charged with illegal possession of a firearm this week, back there would’ve been — but it’s what coaches view as the best option for the team heading into the season.
“That’s one of the things that we try and emphasize is, you never know when your last day is going to be and somebody’s going to have to step up,” senior cornerback Cole Luke said. “You can’t play with one safety. And Avery’s done a good job of stepping up and doing what he has to do.”
Sebastian missed all but a handful of plays in the 2015 season after breaking a bone in his foot in Notre Dame’s opener against Texas. He started seven games during his tenure at Cal (2011-2014) and has been around for so long that other members of his recruiting class included Stephon Tuitt, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Sammy Watkins and Odell Beckham Jr., among others.
Or, to put it another way: Studstill was starting eighth grade when Sebastian began his college career.
Studstill, who enrolled early in January, had an impressive showing during spring practice but missed a good chunk of August camp due to a hamstring injury. That knock set him back, Kelly noted, but Notre Dame still probably would’ve gone with Sebastian to start given the experience gap between the two.
“I think if Devin was clearly ahead of Sebastian, we'd have Devin on the field over Sebastian,” Kelly said. “But Sebastian's had a good camp. He's been really rock solid.
“… You want to try to keep as many veterans in that starting role as possible and let those younger guys work their way into the lineup. But more than anything else, Devin put himself a little behind with the injury. He didn't put himself behind, but the injury caused him to be a little bit behind. But he's made up a lot of ground in a very short period.”
Chances are Studstill, along with fellow freshmen safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry, will all play against Texas and throughout the season. But asking a true freshman to start in front of 100,000 people in his first college game could’ve been problematic.
So Sebastian will get the start, and Notre Dame will hope he can hold his own at free safety — and maybe avoid some of those crippling mistakes made by his predecessors.
“We call him the Grandpa, Grandpa Av,” Luke said. “He’s been around. He’s been in multiple system, he’s seen multiple looks. He just has that knowledge and that wisdom that you would expect him to have.”