An inside look at Notre Dame's intriguing Plan B at free safety, Devin Studstill

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The amusing footnote to Devin Studstill’s impending stroll into history is his 11th-hour flirtation with Texas last December, days before solidifying a silent verbal commitment to Notre Dame with a public and lasting one.

“We were kind of surprised when he took that recruiting visit,” said Studstill’s high school football coach at Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.), Rob Freeman. “I don’t know what he was thinking, nor did he owe that to me. But I thought about that ‘what if’ the other day, and it does add an interesting little piece to his first game.”

Not that the Irish football freshman’s narrative needed any extra sizzle.

On Sept. 4, he’ll debut as Notre Dame’s starting free safety in the very facility — Darrell K. Royal-Texas Stadium — that he toured less than nine months earlier. Both he and the 10th-ranked Irish will be attempting to make a season-opening splash, with just seven starters who logged seven or more starts in 2015.

Studstill’s opening-night assignment will be just the fifth start by a freshman at either of the safety positions in seventh-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s reign at ND, and almost all of them — including this one — tie into recently purged senior incumbent starter Max Redfield.

Redfield accounts for one of them himself, starting as a freshman in the finale of the 2013 season, against Rutgers. Two were made by Drue Tranquill — the Sept. 4 projected Irish starter at strong safety — during the 2014 season when Redfield was exiled to the bench for erratic play and effort.

Redfield’s arrest the night of Aug. 19, on preliminary charges of suspicion of marijuana possession and possession of a handgun without a license, paired with a less-than-pristine previous track record, helped Kelly determine that this demotion carry permanency and a deletion from the roster.

The coach’s most palatable options for a replacement, both long- and short-term, are all freshmen.

They comprise Studstill, an early enrollee who showed prodigy tendencies in the spring and actually leapfrogged Redfield for a stretch; Jalen Elliott, the most talented understudy at both safety positions; and corners Donte Vaughn and/or Julian Love — if Kelly eventually wanted to raid another position group.

“From a pure skill-set standpoint, I don’t think Notre Dame is losing anything, going from Redfield to Studstill,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming assessed. “Max (6-foot-1, 205) is a little bigger then Studstill (6-0, 198), but that’s about it.

“I know some scouts gave Redfield five stars coming out of high school, but I never looked at him as a five-star guy. I thought he was a good, solid player coming out of Mission Viejo, Calif., who’s been inconsistent in college. Studstill is just as athletic. He just doesn’t have the experience.

“I think it’s the mental part where you’ve got to wait and see how he reacts to it.”

The mental load begins with a 100,119-seat stadium in Austin, Texas, expected to reach that capacity for the first time in former Irish assistant coach Charlie Strong’s two-plus seasons as Texas’ head coach.

By design, free safety is one of the three most cerebrally demanding positions in Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s well-nuanced scheme — along with strong safety and middle linebacker. And there are new faces at each one of them.

Add to that Texas’ offense, ranked 92nd nationally among the 127 full-fledged FBS teams last season in total yards per game, got a strategic overhaul this offseason.

Sterlin Gilbert, a disciple of deposed Baylor coach Art Briles and most recently on the staff at Tulsa, is now controlling the joystick of a spread offense so vastly varied from the forerunner smothered in a 38-3 loss at Notre Dame Stadium last September, that any video from 2015 doesn’t figure to provide much usable scouting info.

And Gilbert and Strong have their own cat-mouse quarterback game going to boot, with no officially dubbed starter among true freshman Shane Buechele and senior holdover Tyrone Swoopes.

That means VanGorder and Studstill both will have a more fluid game plan than usual to execute, with more in-game adjustments.

What Studstill brings as a counter is explosive athleticism, a high football IQ, the ability to both change directions and break on the ball well, and the experience of playing in a defensive system at Palm Beach Gardens with significantly more sophistication than most high school schemes.

He also comes from a football family. Father Darren was a long-time coach in the south Florida high school ranks. And before that he was a star quarterback at Palm Beach Gardens High who later thrived in a two-quarterback system at West Virginia while sharing time with reborn Notre Dame castaway Jake Kelchner.

The elder Studstill flipped to defensive back to prolong his football career at the NFL level, playing three seasons for Dallas and Jacksonville.

“With all that being said, it’s still a pretty big jump,” said Freeman, who also coached Irish backup linebacker Te’von Coney in high school. “I think the one thing that plays in his favor is that usually the speed of the game is such a shock to these guys, but it won’t be for him.

“Here in South Florida, we play against a lot of Division I players at the high schools here. The talent here, the speed level here is probably a little bit different than most places in the country. I think that will help him, because he’s used to fast players.

“With that being said, he’s still 18 years old, it’s still Texas and there’s still 100,000 people. The magnitude of it, we can’t prepare him for that. But he’s a pretty level-headed kid, so I think he’ll do fine.”

Whether Studstill can handle the bright lights or not, he certainly doesn’t have a history of shrinking from them.

Freeman tells the story of an eighth-grade Devin and his father showing up at Palm Beach Gardens’ spring game, with the father set on his son playing elsewhere to avoid the pressure to live up to Darren’s legacy.

Devin, in front of Freeman, begged to take the more-pressurized road to Palm Beach Gardens. The father relented on one condition — that Devin finish his current semester with straight A’s in the classroom.

“He went out and got straight A’s,” Freeman said. “And then he went out and made name for himself over the next four years.”

If Studstill merely starts as many as six games at free safety for Notre Dame this season, he’ll be the first Irish freshman to do so since eventual All-American Bobby Taylor in 1992.

Taylor, who will be a guest speaker at Notre Dame’s pep rally in Austin next Saturday evening, made one start at cornerback that season in place of injured Greg Lane, then six straight to end the season at free safety. He eventually moved back to corner after the 1992 season, but kept ascending.

“Sometimes you can catch lightning in a bottle, and all of the sudden, when the lights are turned on these freshmen thrown into seemingly impossible situations turn into great players,” Lemming said. “You never know until it’s actually on top of you and it happens.

“Maybe in the long run, this all plays in Notre Dame’s favor. Brian Kelly took charge and got rid of a player who was causing problems, where a lot of coaches in the same situation would suspend a player like that for the Troy game or the Appalachian State game.

“Maybe this is Devin Studstill’s time to shine.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Freshman safety Devin Studstill (14) has caught on quickly for Notre Dame, but is he ready for the big stage Sept. 4 at Texas? (Tribune photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)