KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If Chiefs outside linebacker Andy Studebaker’s first opening day start is as productive as his very first NFL start, he’ll be in for a pretty good day.
Studebaker will be making his eighth career start on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons in place of Pro Bowl weak-side linebacker Tamba Hali, who is serving a one-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
In 2009, Studebaker filled in for Mike Vrabel at strong-side linebacker and intercepted two passes against Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, returning one 94 yards in a 27-24 victory over the Steelers.
“You don’t know how opportunities are going to come,” said Studebaker, mostly a special-teams standout during his four years with the Chiefs. “You just don’t know as a backup what your role is going to be, and how it’s going to come.
“But you have to be prepared. When you prepare hard, you practice hard, as if your opportunity is coming, you’ll be able to help the team.”
In the opener, Studebaker’s main responsibility will be rushing the passer, not intercepting his passes. Hali ranked second in the AFC with 12 sacks last season and has 53 1/2 sacks in his six-year career, including 26 1/2 in the past two seasons. Studebaker has 2 1/2 career sacks since the Chiefs plucked him off the Philadelphia practice squad midway through the 2008 season.
“You can’t go in there trying to be someone you’re not,” Studebaker said. “For me, I’m going to know my job, I’m going to play as hard as I can. As a defense, we’re going to play hard, we’re going to know what we’re doing, we’re going to communicate effectively and put ourselves in a position to have a good chance (to win).”
Studebaker, 6-3, 248 pounds, has beaten long odds to get this far. He was not recruited out of Eureka High, a small school in central Illinois, and followed his brother, Dan to Wheaton College, an NCAA Division III program in Illinois. Andy played defensive end, while Dan played next to him at tackle, and Wheaton was annually a Top 10 Division III team only to run into perennial power Mount Union (Ohio) in the playoffs.
Andy Studebaker dominated the small college competition, earning Division III All-America honors, and the Eagles selected him in the sixth round of the 2008 draft.
“Not a lot of guys from where I come from get the opportunities I have, so I’m grateful,” said Studebaker.
“I went to a school with people I respected and wanted to be like and decided I’d get a great education and play some high-level Division III football, and doors opened up.
“I wasn’t playing football in college so I could play in the NFL; I was playing for today. That’s the attitude I try to carry in the NFL now. I don’t play for six weeks down the road or two years down the road. That’s served me well so far, and here we are five years later. It’s always fun to be able to represent guys and my school. … I get to be the flag-bearer of Division III, and it’s fun to say I’m from there. Anybody can get found as long as you’re ready to put in a good day’s work, and give it your all, they’ll find you.”
When Hali returns next week, Studebaker will return to his role as a backup and special teams player. Having come from humble beginnings as a player, he understands the vagaries of life in the NFL.
“I got drafted, but I got cut (by Philadelphia),” he said. “I know what it is to be cut, I know what it is to be at the bottom of the roster. Experiences like that shape your character, they shape who you are and they shape how you approach practice and game days and opening weeks like this, where the team is asking you to step up.”
Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel will likely rotate Edgar Jones and Cameron Sheffield in some pass-rushing situations on Sunday, but he believes Studebaker has the makeup to handle his role against an Atlanta team that surrendered 26 sacks and 84 quarterback hits last season.
“Andy’s a very smart player,” Crennel said. “He’s a very conscientious player. He studies the game plan, he works hard, and given the opportunity, he goes in and plays and produces. All of those things are valuable to us, and valuable to him because that allows him to stay on the team … a Division III guy coming in and making a pro football team is a pretty good thing.”
Oh, and about that name, Studebaker. Yes, he is a descendant of the family that produced the unique Studebaker cars in the halcyon days of the automobile industry.
“There’s a big family book, and I’m in the book,” Studebaker said. “Part of the heritage of our family was related. I’m not sure how high up it goes. There were five brothers who moved to the United States and started making wagons for the westward expansion.
“They started making cars, and as the family grew, I don’t know exactly where I fit into that … my dad had a Studebaker when he was a kid. I’ve never owned one. I’m a close enough relation to be in the book, but far enough that they never sent me any checks.”
He’ll earn his check on Sunday.