Irish have hope in secondary

From turning to Devin Studstill to the promise of a Shaun Crawford-Cole Luke partnership, the Irish at least have a few positives in the secondary heading toward Nevada.

Devin Studstill won’t remember the first play of his college career. He won’t forget the third.

At Texas the freshman safety entered the lineup on the final play of the first half, a kneel down by Shane Buechele. At that moment it wasn’t obvious the Irish had pulled Drue Tranquill for a busted coverage.

But when Studstill returned to start the second half it was clear his college career was about to start for real. Then, after a three-yard run in front of him, Studstill watched Texas receiver John Burt blow by Nick Coleman and past him for a 72-yard touchdown. Studstill never left the lineup again, save a few goal line snaps.

“He was calm, he was relaxed,” said Cole Luke. “I think that showed on the field. I think he did a good job.”

Studstill finished with four tackles and could have been credited with a pass breakup in the end zone. He was also on the field for some of Notre Dame’s better defensive moments tucked within those 50 points and 517 yards by the Longhorns.

Studstill finished with 46 real defensive snaps, by far the most of anyone in the freshman class. Next closest were Chase Claypool (3) and Jalen Elliott (2). The Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., product should go well beyond that mark this weekend with Avery Sebastian probable (concussion) after getting run over by Tyrone Swoopes and leg whipped by Jerry Tillery on the same play in double overtime.

Tranquill and Studstill are listed as starters at safety heading into Nevada.

“(Studstill) will see a lot of playing time this week,” said Brian Kelly. “We will have to continue to give him the opportunity to get out there and play and experience the scenarios that you can’t really duplicate in practice. Yeah, you’ll see a lot more of him on Saturday.”

Luke didn’t want to compare the games of Studstill and Notre Dame’s two upperclassmen at the position, but it’s hard to miss the differences. Studstill has a clean medical record, which gives him an edge on Tranquill (both ACLs) and Sebastian (broken foot, torn Achilles, concussion).

Watching Tranquill try to track down Texas receiver Jerrod Heard on that busted coverage was a reminder of what Tranquill admitted during the preseason, his speed hasn’t come all the way back after last September’s ACL tear.

That’s why Studstill can be an upgrade at the position even if he’s a downgrade in experience.

“I think they’re all great, they’re all agile,” Luke said. “I think Studstill has just a little bit more of an athletic nature to him. That’s just kind of natural.”

With Notre Dame set to return to its base defense after last weekend’s 3-3-5 experiment to combat the Texas tempo, it means the Irish should play more four-man secondary lineups.

The position scrapped its starting nickel personnel by halftime last week, dropping Tranquill for Studstill and pulling Coleman for Julian Love. Love took over the nickel position held down by Shaun Crawford, with the sophomore replacing Coleman on the outside.

For a secondary searching for hope, a Luke-Crawford combination should provide some. Combined, they were targeted 14 times at Texas but surrendered just seven catches. Those receptions amounted to just 51 yards and one touchdown, surrendered by Luke on the Longhorns’ opening drive.

By contrast, Coleman was targeted five times and allowed four catches for 105 yards and a score (that pass interference penalty counts as a 15-yard catch for statistical purposes). The one target that didn’t result in a catch came when Burt dropped a surefire 85-yard touchdown.

Kelly admitted Coleman had a rough time reengaging this week during practice, but he liked what he saw from the sophomore during the past two days. The staff elevated Coleman on special teams, although it’s not clear if he’ll return to the nickel defense or if Crawford will remain there with Love.

“You can’t give up on a guy like Nick Coleman,” Kelly said. “He’s too talented and he’s got too much pride. It’s the guys that lack personal pride, the guys that are easy to give in.

“Here’s the great thing about Nick Coleman: He’s won a state championship. He’s a winner. He’s got a lot of pride.”

It’s hard to believe Saturday’s lineup in the secondary, whatever it is, will be Notre Dame’s last. The Irish have too much young talent for the staff to not expect some of it to bubble up at different points during the season. Freshman cornerback Donte Vaughn could be a factor down the road too. He travelled to Texas but didn’t see action. Elliott’s reps could increase as the year goes on too.

“We have so many different combinations, I couldn’t even tell you what would work better than the other,” Luke said. “Everybody could play everywhere really.”

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