C.J. Sanders thought little of the hip discomfort he felt after a spring “tire war” with his teammates, and then gave little consideration to the aggravation of the injury when he planted his foot and made a cut on a pass route.
When he returned home to Granada Hills, Calif., for Easter break, he hobbled around a bit, but it was, in his mind, just part of the rigors of football.
Then reality hit home.
“I made a cut full speed and (the muscle) just tore off the bone,” said the 5-foot-8, 185-pound slot receiver/return man.
“I didn’t know it was that serious. I didn’t get surgery right away. I went home for a couple days and collected myself. I was still walking and everything.”
Instead of building upon a rookie season with the Irish in which he returned a punt for a touchdown against UMass and a kickoff for a score in the final regular season game against Stanford, Sanders – the leading candidate to succeed Amir Carlisle as the No. 1 Z receiver – suddenly was staring at a four-month rehab.
That recovery timetable would put him somewhere near the end of the summer, which meant he likely would still be in the recovery phase as camp opened, minus the benefit of 100 percent clearance throughout the summer training.
“That was my first surgery,” Sanders reflected. “I’m just glad to be back and contributing.”
Sanders’ quick healing under the auspices of head football trainer Rob Hunt has the Granada Hills, Calif., product the No. 1 choice to line up at the Z position, a spot which is loaded with talent, including promising freshman Kevin Stepherson (who also can play the X) and upstart red-shirt freshman walk-on Chis Finke.
“Pretty smooth performer,” said head coach Brian Kelly of Sanders. “He’s a guy that picks it up. There's a learning curve there, but when he catches the ball, he’s smooth.
“He’s great on special teams and he’ll be an effective slot receiver for us. We've got two or three guys that can give us really good production at that position.”
Sanders never could get on the field in the slot ahead of fifth-year senior Amir Carlisle during the 2015 season. But after three nondescript punt returns in the season-opener against Texas, he returned four punts for 48 yards against Virginia in Week Two, including a 30-yarder. He became a full-fledged weapon two weeks later against UMass when he took a sinking punt on the run near midfield and dashed to the end zone.
Sanders added kick returns to his repertoire the following week, and despite a fumble against Clemson to open the second half, his 46-yard return showed that he would become a dual-threat return man in his rookie season.
Sanders capped the 2015 regular season with a 93-yard kick return for a touchdown against Stanford, a first by an Irish player since 2011. His 182 kick return yards against the Cardinal were the third most by a FBS freshman in ’15 and the most by a Notre Dame player since Raghib “Rocket” Ismail returned two kickoffs for scores (a total of 192 yards) against Michigan in 1989.
“I’m a quiet guy, but in the back of my head, I’ve always dreamed of those things,” Sanders said. “My goal was to make plays. I didn’t tell anybody that that was my goal, but I believed it the whole time.”
Now Sanders is ready to make plays from the Z receiver position. He’s a better man and football player for what he went through as a freshman backup while learning about life and football from the cerebral, spiritual Carlisle.
“He was really savvy,” said Sanders of Carlisle. “He was a fifth-year senior and really smart. He wasn’t the fastest guy and he wasn’t the biggest. But his savvy for the game and his mental aspect is what I had to develop.
“He taught me what it takes to be a great player. He was my roommate at Culver and for away games. He pushed me to be great in areas besides football. I’m thankful for him.”
Sanders likely will never wear his attitude on his sleeve. It’s not his nature. It certainly wasn’t the nature of Carlisle, his one-year mentor. But he knows he’s capable of becoming another weapon in the heavily-armed Irish offense.
“I’m really shifty,” Sanders said. “I’m good with the ball in my hands, and I’m (getting better) at being able to read coverages, the nuances of the defenses, and things like that.”
Just the other day, Kelly saw a tremendous opportunity to drive home a teaching point to Sanders. It was a screen pass, and rather than taking advantage of the convoy that right guard Colin McGovern provided, Sanders hesitated.
“(Sanders) waited for the ball to come to him instead of setting the screen up off the guard,” Kelly recalled. “It's the first time that he’d seen that.”
The moment was not lost on Sanders.
“I just have to run full speed behind the guard,” Sanders assessed. “No matter where the ball is, run full speed and adjust. That’s what practice is for. I know now I’m going to correct it.”
Such moments help Sanders appreciate how fortunate he is to be in good health after spending months riding around on a motorized cart as his painstakingly worked his way through a hip injury/surgery that easily could have lingered longer than it did.
“It was tough but from a mental aspect, I feel like I’ve grown a lot,” Sanders said. “It’s shown me you can’t take it for granted. Every play could be your last. So I’m going to go 100 percent all the time.”
Ironically, the recovery was even more painstaking for Sanders because of the helplessness he felt as those around him catered to his every need.
“The toughest part was the looks I’d get from people,” Sanders said. “I’m a person of no handouts. I’m 5-foot-9. I’ve always had to work for everything I’ve gotten. All the help I was getting kind of got on my nerves.
“I’m thankful for the help, but all the help I got and the looks I got…I’m not a pity person. I want to work for everything I get.”
Sanders credits receivers coach Mike Denbrock for his improved understanding of coverages and how to attack them, the play involving McGovern notwithstanding. As for the injury, he has dismissed it from his mind, other than the limitations the coaching staff has placed on him as they monitor his workload during pre-season camp.
“From Day One, I didn’t think about my leg,” Sanders said. “I’m still going to cut full speed all the time. I’m not going to be hesitant. You only live once so I’m going to make the most of it.
“It’s bigger than me. Through my experience, I want to inspire the next guy that might have a major hip surgery, just to show him that it’s possible.”
With a healthy Sanders in the slot and returning punts – he’s still in competition for the kick return job with so much on his plate – there are more big plays on the horizon.
“I feel 100 percent,” Sanders said. “The big thing now is just being smart. I get sore every now and then, but that’s a good thing.
“I’m able to affect the game not only on special teams, but on offense. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”