One of the hottest names during Notre Dame’s 2016 Spring Football was early enrollee wide receiver Kevin Stepherson. From Brian Kelly raving about his hands to teammates offering up kudos to the youngest just a few months removed from being a high school senior. Last Saturday, Stepherson showed Notre Dame fans that he might just be worth the hype.
Stepherson caught four passes for 70 yards on Saturday and would have added greatly to those totals had he been able to haul in a long bomb from Deshone Kizer that appeared to be perfectly placed but bounced off his finger tips. That single play showed both the youngster’s potential and room for growth.
“I don’t know that we have a player on our team in KJ Stepherson that can catch the ball at full speed as he cuts across the field; a very unique trait of his,” said Brian Kelly on Saturday afternoon. “He still has to work on catching the ball vertically down the field. But he catches the ball out of his break at full speed, and it is a unique trait that he has that I have not seen since I’ve been here at Notre Dame, and we’ll continue to work with him,” he added.
Where Does Kevin Stepherson Fit In?
One of the toughest decisions for Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford, and Mike Denbrock this off-season will be what to do with Stepherson. Where Stepherson fits in right now isn’t exactly clear and that is a great problem for the staff to have. Here’s what Kelly said about the early enrollee after the Blue-Gold Game.
I think we’re really going to have to sort out the position for where it’s easier to keep him on the field more so than what’s best for the other players. It’s going to be what’s best for him.
So we’re going to take it slow with him, and find what’s best for him. You know, it’s harder inside, because there’s so many more variables in terms of what he has to do and adjust his routes. He’s probably better suited to be on the outside.
Stepherson has been playing on the outside behind senior Torii Hunter who is expected to become the next explosive, big play Notre Dame wide receiver following Will Fuller and TJ Jones before him. Hunter has come a long way since his gruesome leg injury back at the US Army All-American Bowl in early 2013 and looks locked in on the outside.
Lining up opposite on the outside will most likely be Corey Robinson depending on how his concussion situation nets out and if not, it’ll likely be Equanimeous St Brown given Brown’s own ascension and his similar build to Robinson.
With all of that in mind, it would be tempting to give Stepherson a look at the slot where Notre Dame has almost no experience heading into the season. Corey Holmes had a “out of no where” type emergence this spring and looks like he could be a player there in the fall, but has by no means commented anything.
Still, playing Stepherson in the slot doesn’t seem to make a lot of long term sense. Stepherson looks like he is tailor made to be a deep play threat on the outside and long term playing and developing at the outside seems to make the most sense.
Now, do Kelly and company move Hunter around and play him in the slot at times to get Stepherson on the field this fall? Hunter has experience in the slot and combing Hunter, Stepherson, and Robinson/St. Brown on the field at the same time could give the Notre Dame offense a look many defenses would have a hard time stopping. Hunter also has the experience to be able to work at both positions without a worry of information overload like a true freshman might experience.
The Next Will Fuller?
Stepherson’s speed and ability to catch the ball has been lauded all spring long by coaches and teammates alike. Comparisons to Will Fuller have been aplenty, but before anyone starts to think that Stepherson could immediately fill the void left by Fuller’s early departure should look back to Fuller’s own development when projecting Stepherson in 2016.
Much like Stepherson, Fuller was not necessarily a very heralded recruit out of high school but was identified and targeted by the Notre Dame staff. Fuller did not make an instant impact as a freshman though. He hauled in just six passes for 160 yards and a single touchdown in 2013. He did show flashes of the big play potential, however, that became his calling card over the last two seasons with a 37 yard reception against Michigan State and a 47 yard touchdown against Air Force.
Fuller did not benefit from early enrollment like Stepherson has so it is very possible the Florida native could accelerate his development and start to impact the Irish offense sooner than Fuller did. TJ Jones did benefit from early enrollment and he scored touchdowns in both his first two games as a true frosh in 2010.
What is clear right now is the Stepherson, 247 Sports’s #95 rated wide receiver last year, certainly appears like he will be yet another Notre Dame recruit to outplay his recruiting ranking under Brian Kelly.