Vorel: Kevin Stepherson is out of strikes at Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

On Wednesday, after Notre Dame signed 20 players in the 2018 class, Brian Polian was asked what he’s most proud of in his first cycle as the program’s recruiting coordinator.

His immediate answer:

Fit.

“There are a lot of talented football players out there, but not all of them fit who we are,” said Polian, currently in his second stint on staff in South Bend. “We're not going to hide from what makes us different. We're not going to apologize for it … the things that make Notre Dame distinct.”

Now is not the time to hide. Now is not the time to apologize.

Now is the time to recognize that Kevin Stepherson is an athletic fit at Notre Dame.

But he’s not a cultural fit.

Less than four hours after Polian met the media on the NCAA’s early signing day, Notre Dame announced that Stepherson and freshman running back C.J. Holmes had been indefinitely suspended from all football-related activities. They will not travel with their teammates to Orlando, Fla., for the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl against No. 16 LSU.

The Tribune later confirmed that both players were arrested on Dec. 15 for allegedly shoplifting at University Park Mall in Mishawaka. Formal charges have yet to be filed.

Not only that, but Stepherson has since been charged separately with possession of marijuana, a Class B misdemeanor, as well as speeding and driving without a valid driver's license, stemming from an incident that occurred on Dec. 14 — a day before his shoplifting arrest.

Stepherson — a 6-foot-1, 185-pound sophomore — was previously arrested for possession of marijuana, a Class A misdemeanor, in Fulton County in Aug. 2016. He pleaded guilty and was granted a conditional discharge in June.

Let’s not forget, either, that head coach Brian Kelly could “neither confirm nor deny” in August that the silky wide receiver was again suspended, before he subsequently missed the first four games of the 2017 season.

This was not a solitary mistake, as is likely the case with Holmes. It's a veritable mountain of immature decisions. Surely, even before the second marijuana charge, Stepherson knew he could not afford another slip.

And yet, what did he do less than 24 hours later? He allegedly stole sweatpants. S-W-E-A-T-P-A-N-T-S. That's like a billionaire robbing a bank, or a cow stealing a gallon of milk. A player that is provided enough free pairs of Under Armour sweatpants to stretch a quilt across the country stole the one thing he didn’t need.

It’s stupid, sure, but more than that, it’s nonsensical.

To steal a metaphor from a different sport, Kevin Stepherson is out of strikes.

At least, if this is all true, he should be. Eighth-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly said on Thursday that he will take his time deciding whether Stepherson will be dismissed from the program. Notre Dame had no further comment after the marijuana charge was filed on Friday.

To be fair, if Stepherson were anybody else, anywhere else, a smidge of weed and a pair of stolen sweatpants wouldn’t register on the Richter scale.

But he’s not anywhere else. He’s a football player at Notre Dame, and isn't that supposed to mean something? Isn’t there a higher standard, or is that just the company line?

To recycle Polian’s words, isn’t Notre Dame “different”? Isn’t Notre Dame “distinct”?

If it is, then Stepherson’s statistics shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter that he registered 19 catches for 359 yards and five touchdowns in just eight games this fall. It shouldn’t matter that he made an immediate impact in 2016, finishing second on the team in receiving touchdowns (5) in his freshman season. It shouldn’t matter that No. 14 Notre Dame’s receiving corps may be dangerously depleted in his wake.

If Notre Dame really is different, then difficult decisions need to be made.

And, look: the point here is not to end Stepherson’s career. It’s not to condemn him. It's not to make an example. If he were dismissed from the Irish program, the undeniably talented wide receiver would undoubtedly be granted an opportunity somewhere else. Look at Devin Butler, who was indefinitely suspended in Aug. 2016 before playing all 12 games this season at Syracuse. Look at Max Redfield, who was dismissed following the incident in Fulton County and was recently named a Division II All-American at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

For many programs, Stepherson’s talent will be too attractive to ignore. If he learns from his mistakes, there is still a place for Kevin Stepherson in college football.

Just not where his last chance was traded for a pair of pants. Not where fit is supposed to matter as much as football.

Somewhere, maybe. But not Notre Dame.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Kevin Stepherson (29) celebrates scoring during the University of Southern California at Notre Dame NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA