Matt Cashore /

ND A to Z: C.J. Sanders

Sanders became the third player in Irish history to return a punt and a kickoff for a score in the same season, joining Raghib Ismail (1989) and Allen Rossum (1996).

A Scout top 300 player and the 38th overall wide receiver caught 38 passes for 437 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif. That season came on the heels of a 52-reception (for 738 yards and 12 TDs) junior year at Brentwood (Tennessee) Academy.

Sanders, an actor with nine movie/television credits to his name, including the role of a young Ray Charles in the move “Ray” when he was six-years old, played in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl in Carson, Calif., in 2015 following his senior season at Notre Dame High.

He quickly emerged as a punt and kickoff return candidate for the Irish during pre-season camp while competing for playing time at slot (Z) receiver. Sanders caught one pass no gain against UMass in the fourth game of the season.

Sanders scored two touchdowns as a freshman, his first on a 50-yard punt return against UMass and in the 12th regular-season game against Stanford on a 93-yard kickoff return.

His 53 combined kick and punt returns are the third-most in school history. His 822 combined kick and punt return yards are the fifth-most in a single-season for the Irish. Sanders was one of nine FBS players in ’15 – and the only freshman – to have a punt and kickoff return for a touchdown.

Sanders’ first spring with the Irish ended quickly when a hip injury required surgery and prompted him to miss the majority of the 15 practice sessions.

Sanders fully recovers from spring hip surgery to emerge as the leading candidate to take over the slot receiver position with Amir Carlisle’s graduation and Torii Hunter Jr.’s move to X receiver. Meanwhile, Sanders maintains his lead role as Notre Dame’s top punt and kick returner.

 Even if he doesn’t land the lead role at Z receiver, Sanders should remain in the mix with inexperienced junior Corey Holmes also playing the position. Should Holmes log the majority of the snaps in the slot, Sanders still should have a prominent role on Notre Dame’s special teams.

In 1991, 5-foot-9 wide receiver Clint Johnson did not catch a pass for the Irish, but his 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the final regular-season game against Hawaii propelled Notre Dame to a 48-42 victory over the Rainbows. Two years later, Johnson added a 100-yard kick return against Stanford.

A four-star prospect and the 268th-ranked player on the Scout board, Sanders certainly made a notable impact in his rookie season with the Irish. He became just the third player in Notre Dame history to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the same season, joining Raghib Ismail (1989) and Allen Rossum (1996).

With the Irish trailing, 7-0, less than six minutes into the regular-season finale at Stanford, Sanders took the ensuing kickoff at his own seven-yard line and turned it into a 93-yard touchdown – Notre Dame’s first kick return for a score since 2011. His 182 kickoff return yards on six attempts is the third-best figure in Notre Dame single-game history and the most since Ismail’s 192 yards versus Michigan in 1989.

“He’s at least three weeks to a month ahead of schedule.”
-- Brian Kelly on Sanders’ recovery in June Top Stories