Notebook: Stepherson quiet but not forgotten in return to Notre Dame lineup

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The single catch for minus-3 yards that Kevin Stepherson collected late in his return to the Notre Dame lineup Saturday was a deceiving blur in the bigger picture.

More telling was the fact that 22nd-ranked ND’s most dangerous vertical threat made his first appearance in Saturday’s 52-17 overwhelming of Miami (Ohio) at Notre Dame Stadium in the first quarter and was targeted on two throws immediately was more indicative of where his role may be headed.

“He just adds to our explosive unit outside, and it's awesome to see him back in the lineup,” Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush said of the sophomore Stepherson, held out of the first four games of the season for disciplinary reasons.

“He had a great week with preparation. We weren't able to get him the ball in the first half, but just want to get him a couple of touches and get him up to speed with what we're trying to do on the offensive side of the ball.”

Stepherson was Notre Dame’s third-leading receiver as a freshman in 2016 (25 catches, 462 yards, 5 TDs) and led the team in yards per catch (18.5).

“He’s got great explosion, takeoff,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Thursday in assessing Stepherson’s potential impact upon his return. “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.”

The wide receiver corps accounted for nine of the 10 catches in the game by the Irish. And they combined for three TDs (one each for Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin) after having one as a position group through the first four games combined.

Kelly has been juggling the lineup at wide receiver, but he did start Claypool, St. Brown and Arizona State transfer Cam Smith together for the second consecutive game.

“I think we feel a little bit more comfortable on the perimeter with Claypool and EQ,” Kelly said. “We're still a work-in-progress with some of the other receivers. … We're still evolving. I think we're getting closer, but no, I'm not ready to tell you that we're solid in our first three guys yet.”

Personnel matters

Kelly said backup safety Devin Studstill, a key part of ND’s defensive rotation, was held out Saturday with a minor foot injury.

“Devin could have played today,” Kelly said. “We wanted to make absolutely certain going up against a high-tempo team next week with North Carolina that he was 100 percent.

“He's about 80 percent with a foot, and if he was pressed, we could have played him. We need four safeties next week.”

• Sophomore Ian Book recorded the first pass completion of his career — and two more in five attempts — Saturday night against Miami (Ohio). He finished with 51 yards passing and 37 yards rushing on three attempts.

• Freshman tight end Cole Kmet finally dented the stat column, on Saturday, though perhaps not the way one might expect.

He had a return of 11 yards on the opening kickoff on a short boot, then later recorded his first career tackle on special teams.

• Freshman Jonathan Doerer and junior Justin Yoon split the kickoff duties Saturday. Doerer kicked off four times and had the only two touchbacks. Yoon kicked off five times.

Kareem rises

Sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem’s playing time has started to surge and so has his performance.

Against the RedHawks, he had two tackles, including his first career sack.

“I saw the tackle sit back and show me that he was about to pass block, so I took advantage of that, got off the ball and swiped his hands away,” Kareem said. “When I saw the quarterback just sitting in the pocket, I’m like ‘Please don’t pass the ball.’ As soon as I got there, it was a huge rush of excitement.”

Added Kelly, “Khalid is really emerging in so many ways. Physically in the weight room, his numbers are off the charts in terms of what he's been doing. He's just physically coming into his own. Very trustworthy in terms of what he's doing day-to-day with (defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston. He's earned his playing time.”


Miami (Ohio) tight end Ryan Smith is the grandson of the late 1953 ND Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner. Smith played his high school ball at Fenwick in Oak Park, Ill., just like Grandpa. He had three catches for 55 yards Saturday against the Irish.

• With the 52-17 victory, Notre Dame has recorded three straight victories of 20 or more points for the first time since 2005 — Nov. 5 vs. Tennessee (41-21), Nov. 12 vs. Navy (42-21) and Nov. 19 vs. Syracuse (34-10).

• Notre Dame has scored at least 38 points in three consecutive games for the first time since 2006 — Nov. 4 vs. North Carolina (45-26), Nov. 11 at Air Force (39-17) and Nov. 18 vs. Army (41-9).


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Stepherson made his sophomore season debut against Miami (Ohio). He caught one pass for a loss of three yards. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)