Lesar: Notre Dame safety Devin Studstill carries himself like a veteran

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

LOS ANGELES – Speculation swirled around the periphery of the Notre Dame football program last spring.

Within the inner sanctum, though, there was no time – or energy – to look up from the grind.

A couple months after Devin Studstill arrived on campus as an early enrollee last January, he was the starting free safety, supplanting senior Max Redfield.

Were the Irish coaches just sending Redfield – an underachieving former five-star talent – a message during the spring regimen? Or, was Studstill a legitimate stud?

“I didn’t pay too much attention to (being on top of the depth chart),” Studstill said. “I just tried to go out there and see what Max was doing, then try to do it a step better. It was good seeing him out there to know what to do.

“I didn’t care (what the coaches were doing). I just focused on controlling what I could control and getting better every day. That’s all I was worried about.”

As it turned out, it really didn’t matter.

When fall camp arrived, Redfield was No. 1 on the depth chart. By the time the season began, Redfield was no longer on the team – following a run-in with the law – and Studstill was Notre Dame’s best bet at free safety.

Heading into Saturday’s season finale against Southern Cal, Studstill has played in all 11 games, starting eight. The 6-foot, 198-pounder from Rivera Beach, Fla., ranks 10th on the team with 35 tackles, along with an interception and a forced fumble.

“In the spring, he had the opportunity to catch up,” Irish middle linebacker Nyles Morgan said of Studstill. “In the summer, he was able to learn the playbook. That helped him out.

“He had a big headstart. He was a little bit above the other freshmen. He knew our culture.”

“His working style has changed a little bit,” said outside linebacker James Onwualu. “He’s still transitioning out of high school; learning how to practice and prepare like a college football player. He’s making huge strides in that.

“The spring helps to speed up the game physically. Once school comes around and we’re in a season, traveling around and preparing for actual games, it’s different than just showing up and playing ball like at a spring practice.”

Studstill has been one of the dependable components in an Irish secondary loaded with first-time players. Guys like safeties Jalen Elliott and Nicco Fertitta, along with corners Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride, are all in their first year of full-time duty. They came on the scene mid-season, coinciding with the departure of coordinator Brian VanGorder.

That left Studstill as a veteran resource to that group.

“It feels like I’ve been here for three years,” Studstill said with a laugh.

He’ll have his hands full with Southern Cal Saturday. The Trojans, with quarterback Sam Darnold at the controls, average 474 yards of total offense. They are talented and explosive.

Studstill puts lessons learned early in life into practice every day.

“My dad (Darren Studstill, who played quarterback at West Virginia from 1990-93) told me to play full-speed, no matter what,” he said. “A lot of times, I’d just run full-speed to the ball and end up making a play. It was a matter of having the effort, and wanting it so bad, to just go and get it.

“My dad always talked to me about schemes and coverages. I know where the holes in a defense are.”

Post-VanGorder, the Irish defensive schemes have been simplified.

“The hardest adjustment for me was the scheme,” Studstill said. “I was always used to playing ‘man’ football; just running to the ball. The scheme was different, but it was easy to grasp. I have a good football knowledge.

“Safeties are the hard positions (to learn) in (VanGorder’s) scheme. It helped coming in early. I got a chance to see a lot. I got a feel for the speed, the people, and how this works. It helped me going into the fall.

“I didn’t try to take too much on. I’d concentrate every day on getting better at one thing. I was trying to increase my game step by step.”

That sounds like the plan Studstill has had to keep his head above water in the classroom. Notre Dame’s academics continue to be a challenge that won’t go away anytime soon.

“Academically, it’s been very tough, coming from a public school,” he said. “When I first got here, they threw me in the fire. It was really tough. I got it, now I’m getting better at it.

“Football is football. Academics are definitely a step up. Constant tutoring and seeing the writing center really helped me out. My family reminded me I’m here for a good education and to play football.

“I’m still getting a handle on it. You’ve gotta dig in and work, and keep up on it every day.”

Same formula for surviving on the field.

Notre Dame freshman safety Devin Studstill (14) moves in to tackle Stanford's Bryce Love (20) during the Notre Dame-Stanford game, Oct. 15 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)