Memory of fallen friend helps drive Kevin Stepherson's second chance at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Johnnel Johnson never had a chance to see where his dreams might take him, so Kevin Stepherson was determined to aspire big enough for both of them.

The No. 29 jersey that the Notre Dame sophomore wide receiver insists on wearing — Johnson’s high school jersey number when he was gunned down at age 18, 2½ years ago — was supposed to be a reminder for Stepherson to never take that promise for granted and to never let anything get in the way of it.

Yet there Stepherson was in August, as irrelevant as he could be, playing scout-team cornerback days and weeks before the Irish would open the 2017 football season. It happened because something did get in the way. Kevin Stepherson got in his own way.

“A lot of guys, when they get in trouble or things don’t go their way, they want to pack their suitcase and go home,” said Marty Lee, who coached both Stepherson and Johnson in football at First Coast High School in Jacksonville, Fla.

“And we stress to our athletes here at First Coast, that it’s not always going to be peaches and cream, as the old saying goes. So you’ve got to be patient and do the things that you need to do. And when your time comes, be ready and don’t squander the opportunity.

“And ‘KJ’ almost did that. He almost got himself in a situation where he squandered a great opportunity. But he didn’t, and so what he’s gone through is going to make him a better man and better athlete in the future.”

His present suddenly looks similarly promising.

And the timing couldn’t be any better for No. 9 Notre Dame (6-1), which on Saturday hosts a 14th-ranked North Carolina State team (6-1) that features one of the best run defenses nationally for the second year in a row (sixth) but a susceptible pass defense (67th nationally).

Kickoff is 3:30 p.m. EDT, and NBC has the telecast.

Notre Dame’s own pass offense, 116th out of 129 in the FBS in yards per game and 111th in efficiency, has labored to evolve, as the Irish shuffled and reshuffled receiver roles, searching for a deep threat that could help unlock the inertia.

Stepherson spent the first four games of the season on the bench, the result of disciplinary action that ND coach Brian Kelly continues to decline to specifically explain. It does go deeper than simply residue from his arrest in August of 2016 on marijuana possession charges. Stepherson, himself, hasn't been made available for media interviews either this season or last.

The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder, ND’s third-leading receiver in 2016, spent the games following reinstatement trying to form chemistry with a quarterback, in junior Brandon Wimbush, that he had few previous opportunities to explore.

Stepherson had spent the spring catching passes from backups Ian Book and Montgomery VanGorder as a bottom-of-the-depth chart option, and did more of the same in August training camp and the first couple of weeks during the season — that is, when he wasn’t assigned to be a scout-team cornerback.

“I think it’s pretty easy to point out his athletic skills,” Kelly said. “We’ve never questioned those. This has been about having the right traits, not the talent. And he’s starting to really get that.

“And as he continues to show more of that, you’re going to see more and more of him on the field.”

After amassing one catch for minus-three yards over his first two games, romps over Miami (Ohio) and North Carolina, Stepherson surged in a 49-14 dismantling of USC on Oct. 21 with three catches for 58 yards and his first touchdown reception since hauling in Cleveland Browns rookie DeShone Kizer’s last college TD toss in the 2016 USC game, last November.

Stepherson also contributed to ND’s 377-to-76-yard dominance in the run game Oct. 21 with 24 yards on two attempts.

“He’s kind of like a Will Fuller-type of receiver,” Wimbush said, referring to the former Irish standout and 2016 first-round draft choice of the Houston Texans. “You can put him out in space, (and) it’s tough to cover him. Obviously a deep threat for me, and as a defense, you can’t really put your best corner on EQ (Equanimeous St. Brown) anymore.

“With all the guys we have, we have threats all over the place, but Kevin definitely brings an explosive asset to the team.”

He actually had a more productive freshman season than did Fuller. Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five TDs in 2016, while Fuller had six for 160 and one TD in 2013 in his freshman year, before a breakthrough sophomore season (76 catches, 1,094 yards, 15 TDs).

Neither was expected to be a dominant player in college, per most recruiting analysts. Fuller ended up being upgraded to a four-star prospect very late in the 2013 recruiting cycle, but still was considered only the 19th best receiver in his class, per Rivals.com.

And among his 12 scholarship offers were almost as many FCS schools (3) as Power 5 schools (4).

Stepherson was a consensus three-star player, with his position ranking ranging from No. 68 by Rivals to Nos. 126 and 127, respectively from 247Sports and Scout, respectively.

“I don’t put a lot of stock in the 3-4-5 stars,” First Coast’s Lee said. “I tell my kids, if you go to a camp, all of a sudden you’re a three-star athlete. Another kid with the same talent might not go to that NIKE camp and not get that kind of recognition.”

The Irish look at players in both worlds, but have been astute in recent cycles in picking out one dominant speed receiver in Fuller, and another in Stepherson, who flashes that kind of potential, on the recruiting road less traveled.

Speed is easy to see. Speed that translates to football success is more nuanced.

“The ability to track the ball down the field is really the most important criteria in trying to put speed with the skill of trying to play the wide receiver position,” Kelly said of his evaluation process.

“So it’s generally, those opportunities to see how they track the football. Those are the two big points for me when I’m evaluating those kinds of players that may be a bit underrecruited. I’m looking for the natural ability to catch it over the shoulder, let the ball naturally come to them without fighting it.”

Stepherson also brought advanced fundamentals. He brought an off-the-field track record that provided no hints that he’d ever find his way to a crossroads of sorts based on his choices.

“Quiet guy, a fun guy to be around, type of kid who enjoys life,” Lee said. “He had a good disposition about himself when he was here, never anything negative about him in school. The teachers enjoyed him in the classroom.

“Even now, he comes and sees the kids whenever he’s in town. He goes to the weight room and works out with us. And we always let him speak to the kids about what’s going on. He’s a role model.

“I know he got in some trouble up there and he made some mistakes, but I think he learned that through hard work and patience, it will pay off for you. That’s a great fit for him at Notre Dame. And when he wasn’t sure what the future was going to bring, I don’t think he ever wanted to leave.

“He kind of waited to see if the coach was going to give him that opportunity. I think he appreciates the discipline part of it now much more than he ever did before. And I think he realizes that even though God has given him all this talent, it can easily be taken away by making bad choices.”

And his determination to make it work for him — and for fallen friend Johnnel Johnson — appears to be stronger than ever.

Johnson died at a prom after-party on April 25, 2015. His family had moved to Jacksonville from New Orleans, searching for a new beginning after Hurricane Katrina.

And now Stepherson is a few steps into his own new beginning, likely to include some jagged edges and steps sideways or backwards as he tries to push through months of incubating on ND football’s back burner.

“He’s definitely worked his butt off,” Wimbush said. “We see steady growth from him as the weeks go on. Trying to get him back into the offense, I have to be a part in helping him with anything he needs, but I think he’s done the necessary things to make that leap and have confidence going into a game.

“You want to build that camaraderie with your receivers, and I had seven months to do that with the other guys. We’re just getting started, but everybody on the offensive side is excited to see him back.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Stepherson (29) celebrates scoring his first touchdown of the season during ND's 49-14 victory over USC, Oct. 21 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)