"I'm a Domer," Stephenson, Jr. said on Wednesday. "I'm a Notre Dame graduate. If any Notre Dame graduate had the opportunity when Coach (Charlie) Weis asked you to come back and play football and win, any Domer would be silly not to answer that call. In the past, I haven't played nowhere near as much as I wanted to play. But I don't shy away from competition. It gave me an opportunity and I took it."
Stephenson, Jr. is listed at the right defensive end spot in the 3-4 alignment. The fifth-year senior is looking to beat out senior Justin Brown and sophomore Kallen Wade for playing time. Stephenson and Brown played sparingly last season while Wade did not see the field in 2006. These three players are hungry to contribute and it's upped the intensity in fall camp.
"The competition has been amazing," Stephenson, Jr. said. "Coming into it, people didn't know what was going to happen. From day one, competition has been a theme. It's been real good and made us a better team. Coach Weis and the staff are a lot more confident in the team because there's competition across the board."
Stephenson, Jr. is buying what defensive coordinator Corwin Brown is selling. Brown replaced Rick Minter and installed the 3-4 personnel defense. Listen to Brown speak, aggression and speed are two key components in his style of coaching. Stephenson, Jr. has a firm grasp on the fine points of the new scheme.
"Him coming in during the spring was advantageous to us because it gave us an idea on what we're going to see," Stephenson, Jr. said of Brown. "The first week, with the guys who've been here, we're pretty confident on what's going in. There's still a learning curve for the newer guys. For us, it was a lot easier for us to pick it up. It's not a complicated defense. There's a lot of getting after the ball."
Maybe more than scheme, Brown's personality has been rubbing off on defense, who has been scarred by big-time disappointments in big games the past two seasons.
"The players take the attitudes of the coaches," Stephenson, Jr. said. "We have Coach Weis. He's an aggressive guy. Coach Brown is really aggressive and an in your face guy. The defense has taken that attitude. He played in the NFL and we've seen the hits he had. He's not really standoffish. He's like if you're not aggressive and don't do what we want you to do, you're not going to play, no matter who you are. We got that message in spring and we're getting again in camp."
Stephenson, Jr.'s career with the Irish on the field has been lacking in accomplishments. The fifth-year senior has totaled only one tackle in four years. That was against Army last season on Senior Day. It could've been the last time Stephenson, Jr. played a game at Notre Dame Stadium. Instead, with a change to make a large contribution, the Delray Beach, FL native came back for another year. Stephenson, Jr., listed at 6-2, 272 pounds, hit the weight room hard in the summer. The fifth-year senior also put in a lot of time studying the finer points of the position in the 3-4 alignment.
"This year, it's more of a mental thing for me," Stephenson, Jr. said about his preparation. "I need to get the plays down. You can be the strongest person in the world. But if you don't get your keys down and play a certain technique, then it's pointless. I took a step back and focused on the basics."
Stephenson, Jr., as is the case with most Notre Dame players, reviewed game tape of the NFL to see how the professionals get the job done.
"I've never played the 3-4 before, Stephenson, Jr. said. "I looked at some (New York) Jets tape and other teams. I was really interested in the pass rush technique. You're not in as aggressive stance. I was interested in how they were getting sacks and looked how not to have all their weight forward and more of it is in the back."
Stephenson, Jr. hopes the studying and weight lifting can help the defensive line exceed expectations. In almost any preview of the 2007 Notre Dame team, the defensive line is listed as a question mark. Left defensive end and fellow fifth-year senior Trevor Laws is the only player with more than one start. Nose tackle Derrell Hand's indefinite suspension at the beginning of the month increased the concerns. Hand was in line for playing time behind Pat Kuntz. Stephenson, Jr. thinks the battles at the positions along the line will make these worries disappear.
"What people are underestimating is the competition that we have," Stephenson, Jr. said. "It's made every single defensive player step up. Trevor Laws, Justin Brown, Pat Kuntz, a lot of these guys have staked a claim for themselves. There's a lot of guys stepping up. People are underestimating us but it really doesn't matter. We're going to go out and bust our butts. More than anything, it puts a chip on my shoulder but it doesn't matter. I'm not going to play down to what they think we are."