Notebook: Stepherson, Gilman in limbo for Notre Dame for very different reasons

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In a late-night tweet Wednesday, Navy transfer Alohi Gilman posted a four-word message on his Twitter account: “Patience is a virtue.”

The Notre Dame sophomore safety’s patience was still being testing as of Thursday evening, after the Irish concluded preseason practice No. 20. And he apparently isn’t the only Irish player who finds himself still in limbo for the Irish season opener Sept. 2 against Temple.

Sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, for very different reasons, continues to tread in a sort of depth-chart no man’s land, a trend that started with the very first practice last spring and came to a head Thursday night.

That’s when Irish head coach Brian Kelly was asked if ND’s second-leading returning receiver (25 catches, 462 yards, 5 TDs) had been suspended for Temple, and perhaps beyond.

“I can neither confirm, nor deny,” he said, letting the media read between the lines. Kelly did add that Stepherson was (academically) eligible to play.

If this constitutes the peak of preseason drama for the eighth-year Irish head coach, it will set a new low for it during Kelly’s run at ND.

Both Gilman and Stepherson were afterthoughts in Sunday’s open scrimmage at Notre Dame Stadium, though Gilman’s status was driven by pessimism that the NCAA will eventually grant his waiver for immediate eligibility.

The 5-foot-11, 199-pound product of Laie, Hawaii, was Navy’s second-leading tackler in 2016 with 76. Twelve of those tackles came in a 28-27 victory over Notre Dame, Nov. 5 in Jacksonville, Fla. He also recorded five pass breakups in 2016, with two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.

If eligible, Gilman is a potential starter at free safety, though the NCAA’s slow play is making that less likely for the opener.

“Alohi’s really smart,” Kelly said. “He knows our defense, so he’s in great physical condition. If we were told Saturday morning before Temple, he’d be ready to play. We’re just spending much more time with the guys who are ready to play and eligible to play, much more so than him.”

Gilman will have three years of eligibility at ND whether his NCAA clock restarts this fall or in 2018.

“I wish I could look in the NCAA crystal ball and give you an indication,” Kelly said of a revised timetable.

Stepherson’s future is even murkier. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Jacksonville, Fla., product hasn’t experienced first-team reps, at least during the media viewing windows, since last November.

“I think the clearest picture that I can give you is kind of the consistent message that I’ve been giving everyone,” Kelly said, “that we’re not going to put you in a competitive situation or on the field based on your talent.

“You’ve got to exhibit the traits that we’re developing in our players. His attention to detail, his focus, all of the traits we require all of our players to have, he’s working on and he’s getting better. When he exhibits all those traits, he’ll find himself on the field.”

Personnel matters

Tight end Alizé Mack continues to progress from an early-August hamstring injury and remains on track to play in the season opener, per Kelly.

Mack, who missed the entire 2016 season while academically ineligible, saw limited duty in Sunday’s scrimmage as the Irish coaching staff continues to proceed with caution.

“Just protecting him,” Kelly said. “Some of our (tracking) readings give a little insight into why we’ve been cautious with him. His player load and GPS numbers are off the charts.

“He’s very fidgety and high-strung, and so his GPS numbers top out at some of the highest numbers we’ve ever seen. A walk-through for him is like a full sweat, so we really have to pace him down. We treat him, quite frankly, a little bit different than everybody else.”

• Kelly said that backup defensive tackle Elijah Taylor (Lisfranc foot surgery) is the only player who has been ruled out of the Temple game because of injury.

• Add backup tackle Robert Hainsey to the list of Notre Dame freshmen who won’t be redshirting in 2017.

“Robert Hainsey’s going to help us over there, too,” Kelly said of the right tackle position, with redshirt freshman Tommy Kraemer topping the depth chart at that position.

“Both of those guys have really done way more than we could ever thought young guys could do for us at that position.”

Three-headed monster?

Temple first-year head coach Geoff Collins didn’t have much detail for the Owls media Thursday about how the four-man quarterback derby was evolving.

You can count out Phillip Walker, who accounted for 395 of the Owls’ 403 passing attempts last season, throwing for 3,295 yards. But he’s now a rookie with the Indianapolis Colts.

Collins suggested as many as three QBs could see action Sept. 2 at Notre Dame, though declined to identify any of them.

“There are probably two (quarterbacks) that’ll probably play more than the others,” Collins told Matt Venter of Owlscoop.com. “And then there’s a third one that’ll come in and do some pretty unique things.”

Special delivery

Brian Kelly promised special teams coordinator Brian Polian, when Kelly hired him last winter, the run of the roster when it came to coverage and return teams for the Irish.

And Polian, in his second tour of duty with the Irish, appears to be getting just that.

“I did not want to shorthand him,” Kelly said. “And that was really one of the first questions he asked: ‘How are we going to go about flipping this in terms of special teams? Because I can come in here and be the best special teams coach. But if I’m going to field walk-ons on this team, we’re not going to be very good.’

“So I’m going to give him the resources necessary to perform at the highest level. So you’re going to see a lot of fine players on t hose teams.”

Is Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Stepherson (29) suspended for Notre Dame's Sept. 2 season opener with Temple? Coach Brian Kelly would neither confirm, nor deny on Thursday night. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)