Youth trumps extensive experience, in particular if Drue Tranquill does indeed make the shift from safety to rover.
The only upperclassman with safety playing experience is junior Nicco Fertitta, and that’s been in a limited role. Sophomores Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott likely will be counted on to be the frontrunners based upon pure physical talent, long-term potential and the valuable playing time accrued in 2016.
Studstill was an early-enrollee who received a ton of reps last spring. He started nine games and played in 12. Elliott also played in all 12 games, including goal-line in the opener against Texas.
When Studstill was healthy – he had December surgery for a sports hernia – he was a physical, downhill tackler. He finished 10th on the team in stops (38) with a 30-yard interception return against Michigan State. Studstill is better suited for strong safety, which he is expected to play with Tranquill’s shift to rover.
Elliott is considered a bright, athletic safety with high upside. Defensive backs coach Todd Lyght predicted before Elliott’s arrival that he would be an early-impact player because of his intelligence and abilities.
Do not sleep on Fertitta, who pound-for-pound may be the most physical player on defense. He also has displayed a solid understanding of the inner-workings of the safety position.
A huge advantage: Defensive coordinator Mike Elko coaches the safeties.
If there’s a consistent, big-time playmaker in this group, he hasn’t emerged yet. Studstill certainly flashed those capabilities, but he also missed a ton of run fits and plays that could have been made on balls in the air. He had just one pass defensed and a fumble forced.
Elliott could be that guy, but in 12 games and with 14 tackles, he was not credited with any other defensive stats.
Neither showed consistent playmaking ability against the pass.
It remains to be seen how much time sophomore Spencer Perry and red-shirt freshman D.J. Morgan spend at safety. Perry is made for the rover position; Morgan likely will get a longer look at safety.
Junior Nick Coleman, who struggled at cornerback when given a chance last fall, is expected to make the shift to safety, which might suit his skillset the best.
It would not be a surprise if the rangy Robertson puts his name in the running for playing time as early as this spring. Freshman Jordan Genmark Heath will join the group this fall.
The top three in the spring likely will be Studstill, Elliott and Fertitta, and that’s a whole bunch of youth and/or inexperience. Presumably, their recognition on the back end of the defense will crystalize under Elko’s supervision as opposed to the regular confusion in the VanGorder system.
The growing pains will continue on the last rung of the defense. Spring football should significantly narrow that gap. There’s talent and heart among the top three, and promise with the shift of Coleman to safety and the early arrival of Robertson.
Now it’s a matter of player development, which is where Elko excels.