Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly expressed disappointment and perhaps even frustration when discussing the indefinite suspensions of Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson and freshman running back C.J. Holmes on Thursday.
“We ask our players to be smart and make good choices,” Kelly said. “You’re always disappointed.
“They’re teenagers. I don’t go into this business expecting our kids to be perfect. We expect our kids to make good choices and when they don’t, they have to be held accountable. There’s always going to be growing experiences and the most important thing is to hold them accountable.”
Stemming from an arrest for shoplifting on Dec. 15, this marks the third “growing experience” for Stepherson. He was arrested in August of 2016 along with four teammates for marijuana possession and, separately, was held out of the first four games in 2017. Unsurprisingly, those previous missteps will factor into how Kelly measures indefinite this time around.
“I’m not going to get into the specifics of what [Stepherson’s] future is going to be but it’s clearly a young man that has made a poor choice and it’s not his first,” Kelly said. “We have to evaluate all those things before I make a final decision on his status here within the program.”
Both Stepherson and Holmes — and, for that matter, junior tight end Alizé Mack who is also suspended for the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 vs. LSU for an internal team matter unrelated to academics — remain eligible with the University. To a degree, that lessens the need for Kelly to make an immediate decision about Stepherson’s future.
Kelly will not decide on Stepherson’s place with the program until after the bowl game, perhaps not even until the beginning of the spring academic semester.
“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program, we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said. “… I’m not in a rush to do it. He’s suspended indefinitely and then I’ll make what I believe to be the decision based on what’s best for our football program.”
If Kelly does or does not opt to give Stepherson a fourth chance, it will be due to the (lack of) severity of the most-recent situation. On one hand, trying to dodge a double-digit purchase pales in comparison to, for example, getting arrested for possessing a handgun. On the other, shoplifting is a premeditated decision with a clear victim, even if that victim is a large corporation.
“If I could explain 18- to 21-year-olds and their thought processes after being in [coaching] for 27 years, I would have written that book already,” Kelly said. “We try to expose our kids to the foundational principles of making good decisions.
“They broke one of our commandments. You can’t steal. And they did. I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing.”
Stepherson finished 2017 with 19 catches for 359 yards and five touchdowns with five rush attempts gaining 76 yards. In his freshman season, he caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores.
Fifth-year news forthcoming
Kelly and his staff know the plans for the seniors who may or may not return in 2018, but those roster decisions will not be announced until the season concludes, Kelly said.
Linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar have publicly declared intentions to return next season while defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner told Notre Dame’s student newspaper, The Observer, he does not plan to do so.
The most obvious other options for returning for fifth years of eligibility would be center Sam Mustipher, right guard Alex Bars, defensive end Jay Hayes, cornerback Nick Watkins and punter Tyler Newsome.
In a way, the same goes for any players considering entering the NFL Draft. Players who requested draft evaluations will receive them before heading home for Christmas.
Juniors defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, running back Josh Adams, receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and Mack are presumably weighing that option.
On Brandon Wimbush
The junior quarterback is now practicing without his Nos. 2 and 3 receivers in sophomore Chase Claypool and Stepherson, respectively, as well the fourth-leading producer (by receptions) in Mack. Kelly said Wimbush’s focus nonetheless remains on improving as a passer, no matter who he is targeting.
“He’s really focusing on his mechanics and being much more consistent throwing the football,” Kelly said. “… The last couple of days it’s really about him being more consistent in his delivery. I think he’s done a nice job in some of the things we’ve asked him to do mechanically.
“[The change in receivers] is not something he’s had to concern himself with as much as accuracy, delivering the ball on time, getting the ball out of his hands. It’s really about him and his focus on his work more than anything else.”