C.J. Sanders knew what was coming. Equanimeous St. Brown told him.
In the week leading up to Notre Dame’s rivalry showdown with USC, Sanders and St. Brown work shopped how Irish special teams would sway the game beyond Operation Avoid Adoree’.
A few weeks earlier Sanders had notched the first punt return touchdown of the Brian Kelly era. He wanted another one. St. Brown wanted to become a first too, blocking the first punt since Kelly’s debut season.
“He was talking about it all week that he was gonna block a punt,” Sanders said. “I knew that we had a chance to make something happen.
“I knew he was gonna block it.”
St. Brown did during the first quarter of Notre Dame’s eventual 41-31 win as Amir Carlisle returned it for a touchdown. The moment served as a reminder that Irish special teams can be more than a kicker, punter and holder, although those elements have also thrived this season.
Last weekend Sanders returned a punt 25 yards. He ran back a kickoff 33 yards. Adoree’ Jackson didn’t get a chance to return a punt thanks to rugby style kicks from Tyler Newsome and quick kicks by quarterback DeShone Kizer. Justin Yoon hit two field goals and drilled all five extra points. That means Yoon has connected on 18 straight attempts (five field goals, 13 extra points).
“It’s not just the third phase,” Sanders said. “The guys out there believe in me. I feel like whenever I’m out there I have a chance to make a play. I feel like it’s really going to come along now.”
Sanders’ freshman season hasn’t been perfect, but he’s grown into Notre Dame’s unquestioned top returner. That punt runback against UMass was followed a week later by a lost fumble against Clemson on the opening kickoff of the second half. Clemson turned that turnover into a seemingly insurmountable touchdown three plays later.
That kickoff was just Sanders’ second return after taking over for Carlisle. He got stopped by Clemson kicker Ammon Lakip when he drilled the ball with his helmet.
“The kicker … I should never get tackled by the kicker,” Sanders said. “It was tough, to be honest. Making a mistake on a big stage like that. To be honest, I learned from it and from now on I’m not scared to make a mistake. I do everything full speed.”
Sanders should keep both return jobs the rest of the season and wants to insert himself into the passing game, where Kelly seems satisfied with Carlisle and Torii Hunter Jr. at slot receiver. Sanders has just one catch for zero yards to his credit, a garbage time grab against UMass in the final minute.
Sanders believes he has enough talent to crack the slot receiver rotation but needs an opportunity from Kelly and receivers coach Mike Denbrock. It would be a surprise if that came in the season’s final five games considering how rarely freshman receivers factor into the Irish offense.
Sanders will keep pushing anyway.
“I’ve got to get there a little bit more mentally,” Sanders said. “I feel like I’m learning a lot from Amir and Torii. They’re great players. They’ve been here for a while.
I feel I just need to stay under their wing a little bit more and when I get my chance granted to me, I feel like I’ll make a play.
“I feel like I want to do more.”