In 2014 then sophomore Will Fuller took a meteoric leap for Notre Dame and became a dynamic, big play, down-the-field wide receiver for the Irish seemingly overnight between his freshman and sophomore campaigns. Notre Dame got a little of that from Equanimeous St. Brown in 2016 but for the most part the Irish lacked that threat. In 2017, Notre Dame could have that return to the Irish in rising sophomore Kevin Stepherson.
Before scoffing at the notion of a sophomore replacing what a 1st round NFL Draft pick gave to the Irish offense, don’t forget that three years ago at this time, no one really knew what Notre Dame had with Will Fuller. The one time Penn State commit ended up being a low 4-star recruit by some services but ESPN infamously rated “William Fuller” as the #172 wide receiver prospect in the country. Not #172 overall, #172 at wide receiver.
When Kevin Stepherson was recruited, he drew some immediate comparison to the current Houston Texans wide receiver. Stepherson wasn’t that heavily recruited but was targeted very early on by the Notre Dame coaching staff and pegged by many as a sleeper in the class. Stepherson, like Fuller, was a speed receiver who was still early on in his development.
Once Stepherson stepped foot on campus, the comparisons started to make more sense.
Will Fuller vs. Kevin Stepherson Freshman Seasons
When we look at the numbers, Kevin Stepherson actually vastly outperformed Will Fuller as a freshman, but as is usually the case, there is more to it than the numbers. Let’s compare first though.
Fuller caught just six passes for 160 yards while Stepherson checked in just under 500 yards receiving as a freshman. That’s a pretty impressive total even when considering Notre Dame was replacing it’s top three wide receivers in 2016.
Fuller’s freshman year looks downright disappointing on the surface, but Fuller had established starters Davaris Daniels and TJ Jones ahead of him on the depth chart. He also had Tommy Rees throwing to him, not Deshone Kizer. While Kizer has his faults, he also has a rocket arm that allowed him to utilize Stepherson’s speed. Fuller did not have that as a frosh with Tommy Rees.
Stepherson also had the benefit of early enrollment on his side. Fuller did not.
Ok, even when you consider these things, Stepherson’s rookie campaign was pretty impressive nonetheless. He didn’t have entrenched starters in his way but older receivers Equanimeous St. Brown, Corey Holmes, Torii Hunter, and CJ Sanders were and he still earned his playing time and made plays when called upon.
Will Fuller’s Progression
Now, if we can agree that Stepherson at the very least has a chance to be a similar player to Will Fuller, let’s take a look at how Fuller progressed throughout his Notre Dame career before leaving early for the NFL to get an idea of what some realistic expectations for Stepherson might be this fall.
Fuller exploded in 2014 with over 1,000 yards and a ridiculous 15 touchdowns. Aside from his natural progression and development, Fuller had Evertt Golson throwing to him in 2014 to help facilitate his breakout campaign. For as sound of a game manager as Tommy Rees was, Fuller would not have had the season he had in 2014 with Rees at quarterback had he had another year of eligibility. Golson had an arm capable of maximizing Fuller’s speed. Tommy Rees, bless his heart, did not.
Considering Stepherson put up 462 yards as a freshman, it is not very hard to imagine him being able to replicate Fuller’s sophomore year yardage totals. Now, can Stepherson come close to Fuller’s 15 touchdowns? That would be more surprising given the playmakers that new starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush will have at his disposal. Speaking of Wimbush, like Golson in 2014, he has the arm to maximize the downfield speed Stepherson displayed with catches of 44, 54, 53, and 37 respectively against Duke, Syracuse, Miami, and Army.
It shouldn’t be too surprising for Stepherson to put up similar numbers to Will Fuller’s 2014 season this fall assuming he stays out of the kind of trouble he found himself in last summer when he was in the car with Max Redfield, Tevon Coney, Dexter Williams, and Ashton White when the group was pulled over with a gun and drugs in the vehicle.
In Notre Dame’s first practice of the spring Stepherson was reportedly running with the third team wide receivers. Brian Kelly said after practice not to read into any of the groupings since it was day one, but it still stood out. Was Kelly trying to light a fire under Stepherson perhaps?
Like Fuller heading into his sophomore campaign, however, Stepherson is still raw and needs to put in work this spring and fall to match Fuller’s sophomore totals. Stepherson is a speed receiver right now. If he wants to start at the “X” position, he will need to prove to the Irish coaching staff and new wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander that he can do the little things that come with being a starter.
If he can, the sky could indeed be the limit for Stepherson in this offense. He is the one wide receiver on the roster in 2017 that can really take the top off of a defense and stretch the field. Equanimeous St. Brown is capable of making plays downfield as well but he is a more of a long strider and will make his using his size.
Stepherson on the other hand, can make plays by blowing right past the defense and getting behind the secondary. When he does, he’ll have a quarterback capable of getting him the ball downfield. Remember this is the same kid (Wimbush) who overthrew Will Fuller two years ago in the spring game. If Stepherson gets a step, he doesn’t have to worry about Wimbush airing it out to him.
Kevin Stepherson has the skillset and the opportunity to be the next Will Fuller for Notre Dame. He’s a speed wide receiver with a rocket-armed quarterback and a freakishly athletic big receiver to line up on the other side of the field from him. Whether or not he becomes that will depend largely on him and how he goes about his business this spring and fall. He’s already got a leg up on Fuller in his freshman season. The question is can he keep pace?