Sizing up Notre Dame's next wave of receivers
SOUTH BEND — That freshman Kevin Stepherson persists more than a quarter of the way through the 15 spring football practice sessions as an epiphany rather than a fading flavor-of-the-week is hardly a jolt for Notre Dame receivers coach Mike Denbrock.
Not that the 6-foot, 181-pound early enrolled freshman doesn’t have bouts of information overload from the voluminous chunks of offensive playbook being thrown at him. But the Jacksonville, Fla., product continues to navigate through them impressively.
“Probably Torii Hunter,” Denbrock said when asked which receiver among the seven in camp had the best hands. “Stepherson’s close. He’s got really, really superior ball skills.”
Where Stepherson becomes a spring surprise, perhaps even a shock, at least from the outside looking in is from the context that accompanied him from First Coast High School in Jacksonville to South Bend.
Rivals.com deemed him the No. 66 wide receiver nationally in the last recruiting cycle — the third-lowest rating in a given year for any wideout recruited in the coach Brian Kelly Era. Only Chris Brown (81st in 2012) and Daniel Smith (89th in 2010) garnered less recruiting hype.
Scout.com (No. 123 wide receiver in the 2016 class) and 247Sports (128th) had even more modest expectations for Stepherson.
Why Denbrock didn’t match those was because of a deeper dive in his research during the recruiting process, specifically from watching tape of Stepherson’s drill work, as opposed to his highlight reel.
Yes, we’re talking about practice.
“I watched him get in and out of cuts, watched him doing ball-security drills and running routes and learning how to break down leverage,” Denbrock said. “So he got some pretty good teaching back home, which has accelerated his ability to get in there and contribute.”
This spring is a perfect storm for Stepherson — and other unproven/untested receivers — to have their skills noticed. When freshman Javon McKinley (No. 11 receiver nationally in the 2016 class per Rivals) and Chase Claypool (No. 22) arrive in June, the then nine-man receiving corps will have six career starts among them.
And only seniors Corey Robinson and Hunter have more than one career catch on their college résumé, with Will Fuller(144 career catches), Chris Brown (104) and Amir Carlisle (62) all now chasing NFL aspirations.
“There’s nobody that I look at and go, ‘Man, that’s a work in progress,’ ” Denbrock offered of the largely inexperienced contingent.
The difficulty, though, with such a fluid depth chart at wide receiver and a three-man competition for starting quarterback is establishing chemistry in the passing game.
“There’s a lot of times when the ball will get thrown,” Denbrock said with a big grin, “and the quarterbacks are looking over at me, and seeing, ‘Are you going to yell at the receiver, because he did the wrong thing? Or are you going to yell at me, because I threw it where it wasn’t supposed to be or whatever?’ ”
Denbrock’s scratchy voice Monday after practice, he admitted, did have something to do with yelling. But he doesn’t see it as a chronic state.
“Even though we lost some big-play ability with some guys that have moved on, we’ve got more big-play ability there in the position,” Denbrock said. “And it’s exciting to work with this bunch and watch them develop.”
Beyond Stepherson, here’s a glance at how the receiving corps breaks down so far through four spring practices.
• Hunter is the closest thing to a go-to-receiver, except of course, when he’s not around. That was the case this past weekend, when the outfielder was in Raleigh, N.C., with the Irish baseball team to play N.C. State.
“There’s great signs of what Torii Hunter is doing right now and what he will do for us,” Denbrock said of Hunter’s play as a receiver.
• Junior Corey Holmes' 4.39 40-yard dash speed, the fastest on the team at any position on the roster in pre-spring testing, is beginning to translate onto the field, something that wasn’t happening early last season and during Holmes’ freshman year.
“Every individual kid’s going to be a little bit different,” Denbrock said. “I just think his maturing and his ability to kind of be ready for the moment took a little bit longer maybe than some other guys have.”
• The coaching staff is looking for a renaissance year from Robinson, ND’s leader in career receptions with 65, but who went from 40 in 2014 to 16 last season.
“There were times last year — and I don’t think he’d be mad at me for saying this — he was a little shaken from a confidence standpoint, that we had to kind of get that back,” Denbrock said. “I think he’s in full stride right now. He’s very confident and he’s playing that way.
“I think we’re in the new definition phase of what his role is going to be, and he’s got as much right to define that as I do. We’re going to let him do that.”
• The next wave of receivers has more versatility than in recent years. Hunter is able to play well in the slot as well as both outside positions. So can Holmes, and eventually Stepherson is expected to be able to do the same.
Sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown is getting work at both outside spots.
The advantage, beyond building depth, is that it gives the offensive play-caller more flexibility when he can move receivers around the formation.
• Several of the young defensive backs, going against Denbrock’s receivers, have caught the receiver coach’s eye. The first two names out of his mouth were early enrolled freshman safety Devin Studstill and redshirt freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford.
“The good thing is they’re not only developing some depth there, there’s some quality depth there,” Denbrock said. “So it’s exciting. It’s going to make the receivers better.”