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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 29 Kevin Stepherson, receiver

Army v Notre Dame

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Kevin Stepherson #29 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish makes a touchdown reception against Army during the first half of an NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot, 180 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: Based on spring practice, Stepherson is third on the depth chart at the X, or field, position behind juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and Chris Finke. In some respects, the emergence of junior Miles Boykin at the W, or boundary, position threatened Stepherson’s playing time as much as any other development, as it created an opportunity for St. Brown to move to the field rather than have to run the boundary routes more likely to draw double coverage.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Stepherson became a valued target once the Irish coaching staff saw his speed in person. Despite his low ratings — slotted Stepherson as the No. 66 receiver in the class of 2016 and the No. 58 prospect in Florida — he received offers from the big programs throughout the south, including his homestate Florida, Miami and LSU.

After enrolling early, Stepherson’s speed made it clear he would see playing time as a freshman, and he did indeed despite being involved in the late-August arrests which led to the dismissal of safety Max Redfield. Perhaps most notably, Stepherson caught three passes for 72 yards and a score against Duke and five passes for 75 yards and a touchdown versus Army.

2016: 12 games, 25 receptions for 462 yards and five trips to pay dirt.

Behind St. Brown and then-senior, now-playing-minor-league-baseball Torii Hunter, Stepherson was Notre Dame’s third-leading receiver last year.

Cue the speculation. Stepherson’s performance last season would seem to dictate he spend this spring running with the starters, yet he was most often seen with the third-string. Some of that may be attributable to new offensive coordinator Chip Long apparently having a predilection for large receivers, such as the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Boykin and 6-foot-4 ½, 224-pound sophomore Chase Claypool (at the Z, or slot, position) to go along with the 6-foot-5, 204-pound St. Brown. Some of that drop down the depth chart may also be tied to unconfirmed off-field items.

After the very first spring practice, Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated Stepherson was simply yielding snaps to players who needed more opportunities to learn the positions.

“It’s really too early to read into first-, second-, third-[team] because we’re moving some guys around,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to put Kevin in a position where he’s got to learn a couple of different positions. It’s by virtue of moving other guys to that X position and giving them reps that Kevin already knows the X position. It’s not that he’s the third. We’re trying to get some other guys work over there.”

Toward the end of spring practice, Kelly also acknowledged Stepherson was struggling with a hamstring injury.

“It’s been a lingering hamstring that has not responded quite well,” Kelly said. “It was pulled again. We’re treating it pretty aggressively with anti-inflammatories. He has not needed PRP but he just hasn’t been right, he hasn’t been 100 percent.”

This is the part where I remind you that even [former Notre Dame receiver] Will Fuller wasn’t Will Fuller during his freshman season. He was a gangly kid who caught a couple deep balls among his six grabs as a rookie.

“Stepherson is going to eclipse those numbers. He might even challenge for a starting job. But it’s just too much of a leap to predict a monster season from Stepherson, even if the entire starting receiving corps is being replaced and the Florida native seems primed for a key role.

“I’m setting the standard for Stepherson high — but only to a point. If Stepherson is going to share time in the lot, he’s got a chance to put up numbers at least equal to the last true freshman who jumped into an unproven depth chart — TJ Jones.

“Jones had 23 grabs and three touchdowns as a rookie. I think Stepherson is going to eclipse that, but maybe not by much.”

For this exercise, let’s presume whatever item or items plaguing Stepherson this spring are history come Sept. 2 (60 days from now, by the way). If they aren’t, the outlook for this season is simple: sporadic playing time, if any, leading to widespread frustration.

The Irish are surprisingly deep at receiver. Aside from the three large targets projected to start, Finke has proven to be a shifty threat, junior C.J. Sanders has speed that may not quite exceed Stepherson’s but still should be noted, and sophomore Javon McKinley received praise throughout the spring. With Stepherson, that is seven viable contributors before even acknowledging the two incoming graduate transfers, Freddy Canteen from Michigan and Cam Smith from Arizona State. Both undoubtedly expect chances to play — that is why they transferred, after all — and both are known for speed.

Thus, Stepherson falling down the depth chart could be entirely football-related in the long-term. A perk of that depth, though, is even the second- and third-stringers should get chances. Cycling in fresh legs furthers Long’s hopes of an up-tempo approach.

The best-case scenario for Stepherson individually would be he forces his way into playing time, perhaps to Boykin’s detriment, perhaps Claypool’s. He will almost certainly not play often in the boundary position. Stepherson’s speed is best-utilized to take the top off the secondary. Allowing a safety to simply play over the top toward the sideline compromises that approach. If able to cut loose in the field, however, Stepherson could quickly build on last year’s numbers, perhaps finishing with 35 catches and 600 yards.

The worst-case scenario for Stepherson would be Long’s big-body tactic takes hold and the sophomore speedster is called upon only infrequently. Even then, he will need to outpace the likes of Sanders and Smith to claim the deep threat priority.

The depth at receiver is a luxury to be enjoyed while it lasts. Perhaps St. Brown heads to the NFL after this season — it is not an outlandish prospect. Smith will be out of eligibility. That could be it for natural attrition. When factoring in the freshmen joining the group, Notre Dame will still have more receivers than logical chances.

If Stepherson finds chances to contribute this season, then that disparity in years to come may rise to the chagrin of other options. If he does not, he may be the disgruntled one.

Retaining dynamic talents from Florida has long been a perilous task for the Irish. This is by no means to say Stepherson will head that direction. It is to say, such could be a distinct possibility.

But a few long touchdowns this year could quickly convince Stepherson and all other involved parties his floor moving forward is similar to former Notre Dame receiver Chris Brown’s ceiling. Brown was always incorporated into the offensive plan, even if it did not always result in piles of stats. The threat of Brown’s speed alone was enough to worry defenses, and in that way he was a consistent contributor.

2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)

No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship