Meet Notre Dame's not-so-secret recruiting weapon, 2018 RB commit Markese Stepp

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame’s most relatable recruiter may be a recruit.

This particular recruit is a 6-foot, 210-pound running back from Indianapolis named Markese Stepp. He rushed for 1,295 yards and 17 touchdowns in his sophomore season at Cathedral High School in 2015, then committed to Notre Dame after attending the Irish Invasion camp last June. He began playing tackle football at five years old, after being deemed “too physical” for flag football. His first love was soccer, and he dabbled — very successfully, he might add — with rugby in junior high.

Readers, meet Markese. Markese, meet readers.

Most of Notre Dame’s top targets, however, get introduced to Stepp a little differently.

“After they get offered I usually follow them on Twitter and they follow me back,” Stepp said with a laugh, “and then I get to spitting some knowledge about Notre Dame.”

Granted, there’s a little more to it than that. Stepp — who is ranked as a four-star recruit by both Rivals and 247Sports — communicates with Notre Dame running backs coach Autry Denson literally every day, either via a phone call or text messages. When asked which recruits he’s personally pursuing, the in-state product effortlessly rattled off a list of 10:

• Wide receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown, Joshua Moore, Brian Hightower and Shaquon Anderson-Butts,

• Defensive ends Micah Parsons, Malik Vann and Tyreke Smith,

• Defensive tackle Aeneas Hawkins,

• Cornerback Brendan Radley-Hiles, and

• Running back T.J. Pledger

But once Stepp begins his pursuit, what’s his general pitch?

“I tell them that when they come to Notre Dame, you’re not just playing for the guys beside you,” Stepp said on Wednesday, about 15 minutes before wide receiver Braden Lenzy announced his commitment to Notre Dame. “You’re playing for the university and all the people that came before you — the great ones like Joe Montana, Knute Rockne, Rocket Ismail and all those guys.

“You’re not just playing for yourself. You’re playing for something bigger than yourself. It’s a lot bigger.”

Of course, it’s one thing to hear that message from a college coach, someone whose job it is to effectively sell a university.

Stepp, and players like him, can make the same pitch with a more youthful, relatable twist.

“No matter how good the coaches are recruiting-wise, the players seem to have as much of a hand in getting kids to come to the school. That’s everywhere,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “They have not had a guy like that since (former Irish quarterback and five-star recruit) Dayne Crist (in 2008).”

Ten years later, in steps Stepp. The top running back in the state became Notre Dame’s second 2018 commit last summer, joining highly touted quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

And if Notre Dame really wants you, chances are you’ve heard from him.

“He was one of the first recruits to commit to their class,” said Vann, a four-star defensive end who said he receives messages from Stepp two to three times a week. “And he’s just been crazier and crazier (as a recruiter) ever since.”

When asked if Stepp is his most persistent player recruiter, Vann responded, “Yes,” with a big laugh. “By far. By far.”

“It was always, ’Join the family. We’re doing something big over here.’ He was always in my ear,” said cornerback Kalon Gervin, who committed to Notre Dame on Feb. 13 but began hearing from Stepp long before he even earned an Irish offer.

“He was on me as much as possible,” said wide receiver Micah Jones, who pledged to the Irish last Friday. “He gives all the pitches as if he was paid to do so. He is the best I saw at the universities I had an offer from.”

Now, consider Lenzy, a four-star wide receiver who committed to Notre Dame on Wednesday night. If he signs with Notre Dame, Lenzy would be the first player from Oregon to do so since defensive end Ethan Johnson in 2008.

It’s guys like Stepp that gave him confidence to buck tradition and make the leap.

“He answers the things that coaches can’t always answer — what it’s like being around the players and what the social life is like,” Lenzy said shortly after committing on Wednesday night. “He makes you feel comfortable being there. Me being from Oregon, I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’m not going to know anyone there.’ But at least I’ll be going with a dude like Markese.

“It allows them to recruit so much more broadly because guys end up not getting scared about some of those things. Honestly, for me, I thought I was a West Coast kid all along. It wasn’t really until Notre Dame (began recruiting me) where I thought, ‘OK, I could leave.’”

As of Wednesday, Lenzy’s planning on leaving. So is four-star Georgia safety Derrik Allen, who turned down Georgia, Alabama and others to commit to Notre Dame. So is Gervin, a rare Irish commit from Detroit powerhouse Cass Tech.

In all, Notre Dame has 11 verbal commits from eight different states.

And while Stepp may be a reason, he’s far from the only reason.

“They’re ready to come to Notre Dame and win a national championship,” Stepp said of Notre Dame’s new coaching staff. “You can feel it in the air. It’s crazy. You can just feel it.”

Now, you’re starting to see it, too. With nearly a year remaining until National Signing Day, Notre Dame owns the No. 2 recruiting class in the country, behind only Penn State. The Irish are nearly four months ahead of their recruiting pace from a year ago, when the 2017 class hit 11 verbal commits on June 17.

And all after a catastrophic 4-8 season. So why here, and why now?

“It’s Notre Dame. I saw this coming from the start,” said Stepp, who missed most of his junior season with a series of hamstring injuries. “Last season, I actually think it motivates people to come here because they want to change it and be the ones responsible for changing it when people look back on it.”

If change does come, Stepp will deserve some of the credit. Come fall 2018, he’ll compete for playing time.

Until then, he competes for recruits.

“It’s kind of my personality. I’m a very social person, and I just want the best for Notre Dame,” Stepp said of his recruiting vigor. “I want to get all the top guys to help the University of Notre Dame to win a championship. I don’t feel like it’s something that I have to do. It’s just something that I really want to do.”

“He’s a great recruiter,” Lenzy added. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes a recruiting coordinator when he’s older.”

@MalikVann7 stop playing and make the move

— Markese Stepp (@markese_stepp) February 23, 2017

Welcome to the Family bro!!! Who's Next?! https://t.co/OtQBCmTtCT

— Markese Stepp (@markese_stepp) February 23, 2017

Ayeeee let's gooo we on a roll!!!!! Good to add an OL !!!! #IrishBouND18 who's next??? https://t.co/EU5CjgIuwW

— Markese Stepp (@markese_stepp) February 15, 2017

Let's goooooo there is a NEW #DBU we making noise!!!!! #IrishBouND18https://t.co/UlrHdroFA9

— Markese Stepp (@markese_stepp) February 14, 2017

@MalikVann7 we waiting for u #TicToc

— Markese Stepp (@markese_stepp) February 13, 2017

U and @anderson_quon still a package deal right? https://t.co/aC1nmZCt0p

— Markese Stepp (@markese_stepp) February 12, 2017

Right on G!!! You know da move https://t.co/ZA2eA6SYEW

— Markese Stepp (@markese_stepp) February 11, 2017

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Running back Markese Stepp, a 2018 commit, attended Notre Dame's 36-28 loss to Michigan State on Sept. 17, 2016. (Tribune photo/Jared Hamsher)