Surprise, surprise: Stepherson turns heads

When asked for a new receiver who’s grabbed their attention, Mike Denbrock, DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire all chose early enrollee Kevin Stepherson.

The Recruiting Rankings Industrial Complex had already determined Kevin Stepherson to be just another name and number on Notre Dame’s roster. The 6-foot, 181-pound wide out was a unanimous three-star prospect. One network didn’t even post a photo of the Jacksonville, Fla., product. Stepherson barely cracked the Top 100 receivers nationally last cycle with slotting him No. 127.

So if Stepherson was mentioned at all during spring practice it would constitute a successful first semester in South Bend.

Well, Stepherson has already achieved that goal, assuming it was a goal in the first place.

Asked which receiver had jumped out through the first week of spring ball, assistant coach Mike Denbrock started with Stepherson. Asked the same question, quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer did the same.

Not bad for a player whose No. 29 jersey suggests preferred walk-on more than scholarship surprise.

“He’s got a lot on his plate,” Denbrock said. “But just understanding route running and getting his hands in the right place out of the break to receive the ball, little things like that that some guys you have to kind teach them from the beginning, he comes in with some of that fundamental skill set already, which allows him to look smoother and more polished.”

Stepherson is drilling at the X receiver position behind Equanimeous St. Brown. That’s the role Will Fuller held last season, lining up to the field side. That means more room to make plays and more responsibility to read coverages because there’s extra traffic in the secondary.

Denbrock said Notre Dame has installed about 40 percent of its offense through four practices and that Stepherson has barely grasped it. That’s standard for freshman receivers in Brian Kelly’s offense. Beyond T.J. Jones in Kelly’s debut season, bit parts are best-case scenarios.

Fuller and Corey Robinson played sparingly as freshmen. So did James Onwualu before switching positions. Corey Holmes and Justin Brent didn’t catch a pass. St. Brown and C.J. Sanders combined for two catches that covered eight yards. Miles Boykin took a red-shirt. So did Jalen Guyton before his dismissal.

It appears Stepherson may be closer to exception than rule.

“The way (Stepherson) has come up and stepped up and showed his potential, the things that he’s done in high school and is able to carry it over to the college field the way he has is really special,” Kizer said. “We’re expecting to get a lot of production out of him.

“He’s smooth. He’s out there running routes and catching balls as if he’s been here for forever. He understands. He’s getting our offense quickly. He’s listening. He has all the ability in the world to catch any ball that’s around him.”

Considering Notre Dame lost its top three receivers and lacks an established No. 1 – Denbrock said Torii Hunter Jr. is the closest thing the Irish have – maybe the fact Stepherson has impressed shouldn’t be a surprise. Somebody needed to grab reps during spring ball. On top of that, Hunter and Robinson have missed time due to scheduling conflicts.

When down Hunter and Robinson, Notre Dame has just five scholarship wide outs.

Still, that doesn’t mean Stepherson would default into coaching compliments.

Understanding why he’s impressed goes back to his high school tape, and not the stuff that showed his senior year of 48 catches for 835 yards and 10 touchdowns. Denbrock scouted Stepherson’s practice film to understand what the Irish were getting, which meant route running, ball security and understanding leverage.

Basically, the stuff nobody watches.

“No. 1, he’s had some nice training at his high school,” Denbrock said. “He got some pretty good teaching back at home, which has accelerated his ability to get in there and contribute.”

Stepherson might rotate through the receiver positions during spring ball, likely getting work at the W position, where Chris Brown lined up last year and Robinson projects this season. But there’s no rush to see what Stepherson can’t do. For now, the Irish simply like what he can.

“He might not be the biggest guy, he might not be the strongest guy, but obviously those things will develop,” Kizer said. “What he’s been able to do in the (first) two practices shows that he’s going to be able to take his success rate in high school and apply it to the college level.”

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