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Football

Stepherson’s status remains questionable approaching opener

| Friday, August 25, 2017

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly declined to give a definitive answer on the status of sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, who has had limited reps for the Irish this offseason.

Coming off a freshman season in which he finished third on the team in receptions (25) and receiving yards (462) and second in receiving touchdowns (5), Stepherson looked set to play a major role, taking some of the attention away from junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown in the 2017 Irish offense. However, the receiver spent most of the spring season taking third-team reps, which, at the time, Kelly attributed to the team’s depth at his position, with junior Miles Boykin and sophomore Chase Claypool taking the opportunity to prove themselves with the first-team offense. However, Stepherson’s appearances remain limited with less than two weeks before the Irish open the season.

Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson runs toward the endzone during Notre Dame's 28-27 loss to Navy on Nov. 5 at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.Emmet Farnan | The Observer

Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson runs toward the endzone during Notre Dame’s 28-27 loss to Navy on Nov. 5 at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.

When asked directly if Stepherson was currently suspended, Kelly opted not to reveal the receiver’s status, further fueling rumors that more than depth at the position and a hamstring injury was keeping him out.

“I can neither confirm nor deny [the suspension],” Kelly said.

Before commenting on whether Stepherson was suspended, Kelly acknowledged Stepherson’s talent. But while he did not disclose the exact reason for Stepherson’s continued lack of appearances with the first team, Kelly said the receiver lacked the kind of commitment he had been hoping to see.

“We’re not going to put you in competitive situations or on the field based only on your talent,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to exhibit the traits that we’re developing in our players. And these traits are coming along. He’s making progress. His attention to detail, his focus, all of the traits that we require all of our players to have, he’s working on them and he’s getting better. When he exhibits all of those traits, he’ll find himself on the field. All of our players are eligible to play under those circumstances.”

Junior receiver Chris Finke echoed Kelly’s line about Stepherson’s focus and said he had been working with the sophomore in the hope he could have the impact he may have hoped.

“Kevin has not been getting the kind of reps he would want, but I’ve been talking to him, telling him to keep his head up, work hard, focus, work on the playbook and try to get through everything,” Finke said.

Receivers

With Stepherson’s status remaining in question, Kelly spoke of the other possible contributors at the wide receiver position for 2017. While Kelly praised the depth of the group, he said he’s still yet to find a second receiver on the level of St. Brown, who caught 58 passes for 961 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

“Equanimeous is a great player, and these are all really good players that flash great traits, and that’s the difference here,” Kelly said. “All of them will get an opportunity to compete and contribute to what we’re doing offensively. I don’t think there’s one guy that’s said, ‘I’m Equanimeous.’ Nobody has the pedigree he has. But these guys all deserve to compete and all have the skillset to contribute.”

While the receiving corps contains talented returning players such as Claypool and Boykin alongside St. Brown, Kelly said freshman Michael Young’s ability with the ball in his hands is too dangerous to not let him contribute to the team in his first year.

“Michael has an explosiveness when he gets his hands on the ball that is a unique trait,” Kelly said. “We think we have some offensive plays that can run through him and that can contribute to what we’re doing offensively.”

Chip Long

2017 will see former Memphis offensive coordinator Chip Long take over the Irish offense. Kelly, who has spoken previously about taking a more hands-off role in regards to the offense than in past years, said he and Long have agreed upon how the offense should look but continue to discuss how best to utilize certain players.

“I think we have a very good relationship,” Kelly said. “We’re on the same page. We both have a very good understanding of how we want the offense to be run. We had five or six months to sit down and talk philosophically, now it’s more about how we utilize some guys’ traits that we may not be aware of. And then, of course, there’s learning Notre Dame. Notre Dame’s unique. When we think about our Fridays, there’s Mass, there’s the pep rally, there’s class. He has to get acclimated to what makes this school special.

“There are always different ways to attack defenses. Chip has a style of his own — he likes to attack — and we’re going to use some things that he’s comfortable with and some things that suit our personnel. I said in my first year that I’m about players over plays, and Chip’s a pretty smart guy. He’s not going to get caught up in scheme over players.”

Alohi Gilman

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman is another player whose status remains unknown, as the NCAA is still yet to rule on whether the former Navy player will be eligible to appear in 2017 after transferring or if he will have to sit the year out. Kelly said he has been preparing to work without him, but is confident enough in the transfer’s readiness that he could call on Gilman on short notice.

“We’re still waiting,” Kelly said. “I wish I could look in the NCAA crystal ball and give an indication. I think they’re well aware of his situation regarding wanting to play the opener, and I think our guys have done a great job. But we just go into every day spending more time on the guys who are eligible to play. But I wouldn’t rule out him appearing. Alohi is really smart. He knows our defense, and if we were told Saturday morning before Temple that he’s eligible, we could play him.”

The Irish will open their season Saturday, Sept. 2, against Temple at Notre Dame Stadium. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

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