Notebook: Brian Kelly gives WR Kevin Stepherson the green light to get up to speed

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly still insists on leaving the finer details of Kevin Stepherson’s nearly nine months of exile unattributed and in the land of ambiguity.

But one thing was clear about the speedy wide receiver Thursday night after practice at Notre Dame Stadium. He’s back.

Not all the way back. Not in the starting lineup. Perhaps not even on the fringe of Saturday’s playing rotation when the 22nd-ranked Irish (3-1) host a 2-2 Miami (Ohio) team in a rare 5 p.m. start (NBC Sports Network).

But the 6-foot-1, 185-pound sophomore from Jacksonville, Fla., has the opportunity to gradually become a factor over the balance of the season. Just as he was last year, when Stepherson led the team in yards per catch with 18.5.

He was ND’s third-leading receiver behind returnee Equanimeous St. Brown and graduate and minor-league baseball rookie Torii Hunter Jr. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five TDs.

“He’s got great explosion, takeoff,” said Kelly, ND’s eighth-year head coach. “He can run by anybody that we play against. Elite speed.

“He’s got to work on his concentration skills and his focus. He’ll drop a ball here or there, just because he’s not locked in the way we need him to be. But I’m proud of the progress that he’s made. This has been a long haul for him.

“This has been since January. He’s had to do a lot to get himself here. So off the field, he’s made significant progress, and then he’s got to work his way up the depth chart too. We’re not going to accelerate that. He’s going to have to earn that, and that’s going to take time, too.”

Stepherson was an afterthought in the spring, often taking third-team reps, and even less of a presence in August training camp. Kelly said Stepherson began taking meaningful practice reps with the varsity, as opposed to the scout team, last week.

“He’ll be limited in action,” Kelly said of the Miami game. “His cumulative work is such that he just doesn’t have the volume, but he’s been doing a much better job in terms of the day to day and the attention to detail. Just his focus.

“The traits that I’ve been talking about with him, he’s better. But don’t expect him to be playing a high-volume game.”

Kelly said he didn’t get an indication from Stepherson the sophomore ever considered transferring during the long road back.

“I guess maybe that’s where I’m probably most proud of him, is his grit in sticking with it,” the coach said. “He could have kicked the can, if you will, and said, ‘I’m done. I’m going to transfer.’

“But he knows that Notre Dame was a place that could change his life. And I think, to a large degree, it has in many ways and continues to every day.”

Williams hobbled

A key piece of the nation’s No. 7 rushing attack could be missing Saturday, as Kelly revealed Thursday night that junior Dexter Williams will be a game-time decision against Miami (Ohio) after suffering an ankle injury during ND’s 38-18 dismissal of Michigan State last weekend in East Lansing, Mich.

Williams is ND’s third-leading rusher with 214 yards and four touchdowns on 20 carries. His 10.7 per-carry average leads the team.

Leading rusher Josh Adams, held out of the latter stages of the Michigan State game because of ankle stiffness, did return to practice this week and is expected to be 100 percent. So is sophomore Tony Jones Jr., after missing the MSU game (ankle). Sophomore Deon McIntosh will also be part of the rotation.

Upon further, further review

Both the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference acknowledge this week, per Kelly, that a targeting call against Michigan State was missed last Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

The Big Ten supplied the replay crew for the game. The on-field officials were from the ACC.

Michigan State outside linebacker Chris Frey was not only spared from ejection during the first quarter of the ND game, he wasn’t penalized at all.

On the play, with the Irish leading 14-7 with 4:34 left in the first quarter, middle linebacker Joe Bachie tripped up Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush. As the Irish QB lay on the ground, the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Frey came flying into the frame, head first, and made a helmet-to-helmet hit to the back of Wimbush’s head.

Wimbush got up very slowly and appeared momentarily dazed after he got up.

Cage hits the books

He doesn’t come to practice, doesn’t hit the weights much and hasn’t talked to Kelly about his football future in weeks.

And Kelly wouldn’t have it any other way for senior Daniel Cage.

The part-time starter at nose guard in 2016 is sitting out the season, and could retire from the sport in the coming months, after suffering a knee injury that required surgery this spring and suffering intermittent concussion symptoms that wiped out the final third of last season for him.

“We’ve given him the opportunity to focus on his academics,” Kelly said. “For me, the most important thing is to see that he gets his degree this year. And then we can figure out if football is still an option for him.”

Cage had 10 tackles last season in a timeshare with Jarron Jones, now a practice squad rookie with the Dallas Cowboys, as an offensive tackle, no less.

“I think he’s feeling pretty good,” Kelly said of Cage’s symptoms, “but we’ve kind of had conversations about really focusing on his academics to make sure that he’s solid there. Then in January, if we feel like we wanted to restart this, we would sit down and have this conversation.”

Honoring Ara

Former Notre Dame coaching icon Ara Parseghian, who died last month, had strong ties to both schools in Saturday’s Irish-Miami (Ohio) matchup, and his legacy will be celebrated on campus throughout the weekend.

Parseghian’s widow, Katie, will present the colors prior to the National Anthem. Parseghian’s likeness will be featured on the commemorative coin used in the pregame coin toss, and there will be four in-game moments honoring him.

Okwara surging

Sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara isn’t an every-down player — yet — but he’s begun to make an impact on games at key moments.

The younger brother of Notre Dame’s 2014 and 2015 sack leader, Romeo Okwara, has a modest five tackles through four games, but that’s actually one more than he had all of last season in 11 games.

But he’s tied for the team lead in sacks, with 1.5, has two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.

“I would say we’re pleased in what he’s giving us in our sub packages,” Kelly said. “The fight with Julian has been obviously body weight and maintaining that body weight. He’s done a pretty good job there.

“I think what he’s done that’s surprised us more than anything else has been that he continues to show really good improvement in the weight room. He’s surprisingly strong. And I think that kind of shows in the way he plays.

“So even though he’s not in that 250-255 (pound) range, at 230-232, he’s got some real strength, so real pleased with what he’s doing.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Stepherson (29) scores a touchdown during ND's 45-27 loss at Southern Cal on Nov. 26, 2016, which is the last game he has played in for the Irish. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)