At some point Saturday, Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson will return to action, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly confirmed Thursday. It almost certainly will not be at the first snap. It most likely will not even be in the first quarter. Perhaps it won’t come until the game’s result is well beyond doubt, but it should happen.
“He’ll be limited in action,” Kelly said. “He’s doing a better job. 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 attention to detail and just his focus. The traits that I had been talking about with him, he’s better. But don’t expect him to be playing a high-volume game.”
For whatever reason, Stepherson has yet to see the field this season after catching 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman. Three of those touchdowns qualified as “big” plays not just by scoring but also by their distance, covering 37, 44 and 57 yards. Stepherson also caught a 53-yard pass against Miami only to be tracked down at the nine-yard line, a rare moment where his speed was not unrivaled.
“He’s got great explosion, takeoff,” Kelly said. “He can run by anybody that we play against, elite speed.”
Kelly indicated the difficulties with traits, to use his phrasing, that kept Stepherson off the field have been an issue since January. With that in mind, there was certainly ample time for Stepherson to pack his bags and find opportunity elsewhere.
“That’s where I’m probably most proud of him, is his grit and sticking with it,” Kelly said. “He could have kicked the can and said, ‘I’m done, I’m going to transfer.’ He knew that Notre Dame was a place that could change his life and I think in a large degree it has in many ways and continues to every day.”
Just a week ago, Stepherson’s return to the field would have been heralded as a possible salve to the woes plaguing the Irish passing game. Against Michigan State, however, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool established himself as a viable No. 2 option to junior Equanimeous St. Brown, the former catching four passes for 56 yards and the latter pulling in four throws for 61 yards. In many respects, it was the first time the Notre Dame passing game showed a semblance of a rhythm.
Running backs injury update: Nearly all of them
The good news: Kelly said junior Josh Adams is completely healthy and took the majority of the first-team snaps in practice this week. Nonetheless, the Irish continue to monitor Adams’ weekly workload. Adams experienced ankle “stiffness” at halftime of the victory over the Spartans, limiting him to only two carries in the second half.
The also good news: Sophomore Tony Jones has recovered fully from the ankle sprain he suffered two weeks ago at Boston College. Jones did not don pads at Michigan State, though he was present on the sideline.
The not-so-good news: Junior Dexter Williams is now in the position Jones was a week ago. Kelly said Williams’ availability against Miami (OH) would be a game day decision, simply depending on how his ankle feels at that point.
The expected news: Sophomore Deon McIntosh handled the third-team repetitions this week, behind Adams and Jones, respectively. This is of some note only in that with all three of the backs usually ahead of him battling tender ankles already this season, McIntosh must be ready for competitive action at all times, despite being a nominal fourth-stringer.
Yes, that was targeting
Notre Dame submitted a request for further evaluation of a particular missed call in the 38-18 victory over the Spartans. In the first quarter, Michigan State senior linebacker Chris Frey connected with Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s neck/head with his own helmet, but no targeting call was made. On Tuesday, Kelly described the hit as “egregious.”
Both the Big Ten and the ACC agreed with Notre Dame the call was “clearly missed,” per Kelly.
Kelly on hypothetical protests
At this point, it is surprising if a football coach at any level is not asked about the sideline protests seen throughout the NFL last weekend. Those displays came in response to comments made by President Donald Trump, and those were made as commentary on previous NFL player actions meant to protest racial inequalities.
Kelly was asked if any of his players, particularly team leadership, has approached him with thoughts of showing some solidarity with the NFL players, keeping in mind they personally know quite a few of those professionals.
“I meet with [leadership] every week and that has not been an agenda item,” Kelly said. “They haven’t brought it up to me. I think that whatever we would do, obviously they’re students here and we respect the fact that they have the opportunity to free think and be who they are.”
Kelly did point out he would prefer any such action be done as a team rather than only by individuals.
“That’s the struggle from a distance that I see that’s going on right now. You’ve got a team sport. It’s hard to put the team parameters on individuals that want to be able to have their voice. It’s a tough mix there.”
Yoon remains on kickoff duty
Junior kicker Justin Yoon will handle kickoffs again this weekend, just as he did at Michigan State, most of the Boston College contest and all of the two previous games. Freshman Jonathan Doerer had the first chances at the duty against the Eagles.
Cage’s focus remains on diploma
Fighting concussion symptoms shortly after a knee surgery, this past summer senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage opted to spend a year away from football. Kelly said the focus with Cage is still on finishing his degree this year, but he did not rule out a return to football, including a return to football at Notre Dame.
“We’ve had conversations about really focusing this fall on his academics and making sure that he’s solid there,” Kelly said. “Then in January if we feel we wanted to restart this, then we’d sit down and have that conversation.”