Notebook: Reversing field at safety, Brian Kelly opting for experience in Sebastian

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A hamstring injury that sidelined freshman Devin Studstill for a significant stretch in August training camp eventually coaxed Brian Kelly to trade one unknown for another.

The spring sensation at free safety is reportedly back to 100 percent now, but Kelly on Tuesday revealed his new No. 1 option at the position, for now, is sixth-year grad senior Avery Sebastian.

“He’s made up a lot of ground in a very short period,'' Kelly offered of Studstill, still in play to be the first Notre Dame freshman to start six or more games at the free safety position since Texan Bobby Taylor 24 seasons ago.

But in 10th-ranked ND’s season opener with Texas in Austin Sunday night (7:30 EDT; ABC-TV), Kelly’s lean to start is Sebastian, who more prototypically fits the strong safety position and whose most recent of his six collegiate starts came in a Cal Bears uniform against Washington in October of 2014.

The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder’s next-most recent start came in 2012, the same year ND was making a run at the national title with not one of the current Irish players playing a down, while Studstill was a quarterback on Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High’s freshman team.

Sebastian’s only game action in an Irish uniform came in a season-opening 38-3 rout of Texas in Notre Dame Stadium last September, a cameo that ended with a broken foot before Sebastian could log a statistic of any kind.

“What we've seen and what we can evaluate is a consistent performer,” Kelly said of Sebastian. “He's assignment-correct. He makes very few errors, and that's what we like.”

Kelly acknowledged the Irish are sacrificing the range that the 6-0, 198-pound Studstill gives the Irish, and added Studstill is expected to see action in a reserve role in ND's first true season-opening road game since 2006, at Georgia Tech.

Senior Max Redfield, the incumbent starter at free safety, was dismissed from the team by Kelly on Aug. 21, less than 48 hours after being arrested in Fulton County in northern Indiana. He faces misdemeanor counts of illegal possession of a handgun and possession of marijuana, and entered not-guilty pleas on both charges in court Tuesday morning.

“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,” Kelly said. “But more than anything else, the injury caused (Studstill) to be a little bit behind.”

Freshmen in two-deeps

Studstill was one of seven freshmen listed in ND’s first two-deep depth chart of the season, though sometimes potential subs aren’t always linear.

Jamir Jones, for instance, was listed as the No. 2 outside linebacker behind senior captain James Onwualu. But if something happened to Onwualu, coordinator Brian VanGorder would more likely shift starting weakside linebacker Greer Martini outside and elevate either Asmar Bilal or Te’von Coney to Martini’s spot inside.

The other five freshmen listed comprised right tackle Tommy Kraemer, wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, strong safety Jalen Elliott and cornerback Julian Love — all reserves.

More personnel matters

Junior Andrew Trumbetti took advantage of classmate Jay Hayes’ high ankle sprain, pushing to the top of the depth chart at rush end in his absence and putting himself in line to make career start No. 5 on Sunday night.

Hayes is back practicing and is expected to rotate in, as is freshman Daelin Hayes.

• Kelly said injured junior cornerback Nick Watkins is due for X-rays on his surgically repaired left arm in a couple of weeks to see if he can be cleared to resume football activities.

Watkins underwent surgery on April 2, midway through spring practice, and was expected to be 100 percent by June. But the injury has lingered. He recently underwent a procedure earlier this month, per Kelly, to stimulate bone growth.

New NBC faces

NBC announced Tuesday the addition of play-by-play man Mike Tirico and analyst Dhani Jones to its coverage team of Irish football.

Tirico will handle the play-by-play duties for ND’s first three home games (Nevada, Michigan State, Duke) while lead announcer Dan Hicks is on assignment.

Jones, an 11-year NFL veteran and former linebacker at Michigan, will be part of NBC’s pregame and halftime shows.

QB filibuster continues

Part of Kelly being vague about just what his two-quarterback system may look like Sunday is his sincere desire to let the flow of the game play into who plays how much and when.

What he did offer concretely is that neither senior Malik Zaire nor junior DeShone Kizer is a fan of the arrangement, but he hopes they embrace it in the moment on Sunday.

“It's not an ideal situation for either one of them,” Kelly said. “It's best for our team that they both play. How long this happens — I don't know. We'll see how it plays out.

“And if we can find a way that they both can feed off each other, help our offense to be the productive offense that we want it to be, I'd love to see them both play. You know, nobody seems to think that this can happen, but we're going to give it a shot.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame's Josh Adams (33) beats safety Avery Sebastian during a Notre Dame football practice last spring. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)