One of the biggest looming questions facing Notre Dame football with the Irish just a little over a week out from the season opener is the case of sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson. When Brian Kelly met with the media on Thursday, he did not do much to clear up the situation either leaving Stepherson one of the biggest enigmas on the team eight days before the Irish face Temple.
“The clearest picture that I can give you is the consistent message that I’ve been giving everyone,” Kelly said on Thursday. “We’re not going to put you in a competitive situation – or on the field – based on your talent. You have to exhibit the traits that we’re developing in our players,” he added.
With specific regard to Kevin Steperson, Kelly added, “Those traits are coming along, he’s making progress. But his attention to detail, his focus – all of the traits we require all of our players to have – he’s working on and he’s getting better. When he exhibits all those traits, he’ll find himself on the field.”
Ever since the spring it has been clear that Stepherson was in the doghouse or whatever you want to call it. Based on talent, he is probably the second best wide receiver on the team behind Equanimous St. Brown. In fact, I had Stepherson ranked as the 10th best player on the Notre Dame roster in our recent rankings (my fellow voters weren’t quite as high though and he fell to #18). And the numbers speak for themselves. Statistically speaking, he had one of the most productive freshman seasons for any wide receiver in Notre Dame history.
Stepherson has not been able to get on the field though. In the spring he was running with the third team when the media was given viewing access. Snaps appeared to be even more sparse for Stepherson this summer to the point that he was a complete non-factor on Sunday in the “New & Gold” Game inside Notre Dame Stadium. It led to widespread speculation this week that Stepherson was either suspended or that a suspension was about to be handed out.
Kelly did not do much to clear up those rumors Thursday. “I can neither confirm nor deny,” was Kelly’s answer when pressed on whether or not Stepherson was suspended.
If you read between the tea leaves here, it sounds like the staff is fully aware that Stepherson is one of their most talented players but they are trying to send a message to the sophomore that he needs to do more than just show up and be talented to play. Perhaps we are even dealing with some sort of team suspension, but not a University suspension so Kelly wants to deal with this all in house. With all of the recent University suspensions related to academics the last few years, Kelly would be wise stay noncommittal to avoid the “more suspensions for Notre Dame players” news cycle.
While it’s refreshing the coaching staff is sending this message, it’s also frustrating to observe given how talented Stepherson is. On one hand, he has the potential to be a special player, but on the other, if he isn’t doing what he needs to be doing to get on the field, the coaches are wise to take the approach they are.
One would have to think that this thing resolves itself in the near future since a situation like this lingering over a team can have a negative impact beyond just not having Stepherson on the field. There are some encouraging signs here though.
- Kelly noted that Stepherson is making progress in the areas that he needs to to get on the field.
- Kelly specifically said that all of the players are eligible to play if they display the traits he mentioned so this doesn’t appear to be any sort of academics issue.
- Stepherson is still on the team. He hasn’t transferred and he is seemingly working on the traits Kelly and staff want him to work on.
While that is all encouraging, it also doesn’t get Stepherson on the field tomorrow or next Saturday when Notre Dame could use Stepherson’s explosiveness and ability to get behind a defense. As a freshman, Stepherson looked like he could be the same type of deep threat that Will Fuller was for 2014-2015. While he might lack Fuller’s top end speed – most receivers do – he also has displayed much better hands than Fuller at the same time.
If Stepherson does not get on the field this fall, freshman Michael Young could help replace some of what Notre Dame would lose without Stepherson on the field. Kelly has been very high on Young all summer long and on Thursday he once again lauded Young’s explosiveness and said that Young will be a part of the offense. He likely won’t be a focal point, but he will be a part of it.
Now the question remains, will Kevin Stepherson be a part of it?