A three-star prospect ranked no higher than 66th (Rivals) among wide receivers and as low as 123rd (Scout.com), Stepherson seemed to alternate between third-string receiver and left benchwarmer last spring – that following a breakout freshman season in which his five touchdowns ranks second all-time among rookie receivers at the program.
He did not receive as many reps over the course of the 15-practice spring as did his fellow pass catchers with the initial reason given was that the other receivers were “cross-training” while Stepherson wasn’t going to play anything other than his customary X position.
Head coach Brian Kelly later revealed a hamstring injury had set his sophomore target back. But one week later, Stepherson looked plenty quick during the annual Blue Gold Game.
Clearly an off-the-field issue impacted the rising sophomore’s status with the coaching staff for the spring session. It was one that wasn’t public and thus did not have to be made so by his head coach.
- Class: Sophomore
- On the depth chart: Third string X receiver
- Post-spring status: The Doghouse
STEPHERSON AT HIS BEST
The 0:54 second mark of this game film against Miami last October, and its direct correlation to Brian Kelly’s quote on Stepherson below.
“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.” – Brian Kelly
BEST CASE SCENARIO
Equanimeous St. Brown is the lone known quantity among Notre Dame’s deep, youth-filled receiving corps – and then there’s everyone else.
“Everyone else,” at present, includes size/speed freaks of nature Chase Claypool and tight end-hybrid Alize Mack, plus up-and-coming massive junior target Miles Boykin.
Add to that massive mix the lithe Stepherson, who, at his best, should round out that quintet. Because of his speed with and without the football, Stepherson appears a more dangerous football player than quick-footed Chris Finke and often-dazzling kick return man C.J. Sanders.
Moreover, Stepherson is clearly more accomplished than classmate Javon McKinley who lost out to the former last season (due in part to Stepherson’s early enrollment) then fell further behind the pack with a broken leg last fall.
Stepherson’s chief skills are unique among the group – he can get deep and he can gash a defense for full-speed yards after the catch as shown in the video link above.
The Irish offense needs that this fall.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
Deep backup status in August Camp.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Stepherson again trots out with the third unit when the Irish open camp in Culver, just as he did for the bulk of Spring Ball 2017. Merely opening day semantics.
Arrested last August with four teammates (three of whom remain on the squad) Stepherson is one of Notre Dame’s five best receivers. If he’s not heavily involved in the rotation by mid-camp it will be clear he’s not toeing the line off the field rather than on it.
There aren’t many points of comparison for productive freshmen wide receivers at Notre Dame, historically a run-first program since freshmen were first made eligible in 1972.
Atop the list is Michael Floyd, whose 48 catches, 7 touchdowns, and 719 yards will be tough to top. And then there’s the likes of Tony Hunter (29-690-2), Derrick Mayes (10-272-3) and, well, Tim Freaking Brown (28-340-1) plus The Rocket (12-331-2, plus two return TD).
Brown, Ismail, Mayes, Floyd, and Jones each went on to be named the Monogram Club Team MVP later in their careers.
Stepherson posted 25 receptions for a whopping 462 yards (18.5 per catch) and five touchdowns last fall. Seven seasons prior, Brian Kelly’s first freshman contributor in South Bend, T.J. Jones, tallied 23 grabs for 306 yards and 3 scores. He’s perhaps the best freshman season comparison to Stepherson entering their respective sophomore seasons.