For all his shortcomings — and all those big plays that plagued Notre Dame’s defense over the last few years — Max Redfield was Notre Dame’s most experienced safety by a wide margin.
The senior started 23 games from 2013-2015; the next-most experienced safety Notre Dame has is sixth-year graduate student Avery Sebastian, whose last start came in 2014 with Cal (and was the only game he started that year). Junior Drue Tranquill has four starts, and both he and Sebastian are coming off season-ending injuries in 2015.
The rest of Notre Dame’s safety depth chart not only has no starts at the college level, but also nobody on it — Nicco Fertitta, Devin Studstill, Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry — has played a meaningful snap at Notre Dame.
Add in the praise Redfield earned from coach Brian Kelly earlier this month, and the former five-star recruit’s dismissal from the program following his arrest over the weekend reveals a gaping hole in the Irish defense.
“I’ve been very pleased with Max Redfield,” Kelly said on Aug. 11. “He has elevated to that level of consistent performer. He’s been — I hate to throw cliches around, but he’s been that guy that everybody was hoping for out of high school. He’s playing at that level. He’s at an elite level.”
Notre Dame’s defense has to reduce the number of calamitous explosive plays it allows to have any shot of succeeding without 2015 stalwarts like Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day. The Irish defense allowed 30 plays of 30 or more yards last year (85th in FBS), and ranked 76th in defensive IsoPPP+, a stat that tracks explosiveness. Redfield, from his perch at free safety, was responsible for a number of those big-chunk gains.
But even as Studstill, who enrolled early in January, made headlines by taking first-team reps from Redfield during spring practice, it was clear Notre Dame’s defense would always be better off with Redfield starting at safety and, at the least, developing into a reliable, consistent player back there. The five-star talent didn’t disappear, even if the were spills in drinking through the Brian VanGorder firehose.
While Studstill was praised as a “natural” during spring practice, there’s an unknown part of his game as he becomes the next man in at free safety: How will the 6-foot, 198 pound former three-star recruit from Riviera Beach, Fla. handle his first college game? Anecdotally, it seems rare for a true freshman safety to start a season opener, and Notre Dame’s will come in one of college football’s more daunting atmospheres against Texas at Darrell K. Royal Stadium in Austin. That stadium should have a crowd of about 100,000 for a nationally-televised primetime game Sept. 4.
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If Studstill falters, Elliott — a four-star member of Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class — could be the next in line, unless VanGorder & Co. decide to slide a more experienced-but-bigger player like Tranquill or Sebastian over to free safety. Either way, Notre Dame will roll with someone lacking in experience or playing out of position.
Brian Kelly came down hard on Redfield and earned praise from national columnists and pundits for his strongly-worded statement and swift discipline. The punishment wasn’t determined by the fact it would force a pair of true freshmen atop the two-deep — instead, it was determined by Redfield’s conduct that “clearly fails to meet the standards I have set for our football team.”
Maybe Studstill and/or Elliott pick up the defense quickly and hold their own, as then-redshirt freshman Matthias Farley did next to Zeke Motta in 2012 (it should be noted that Bob Diaco’s defense was simpler than VanGorder’s, though). But without Redfield, Notre Dame will head to Texas with another unknown on a defense full of question marks.