Scout’s No. 268 prep prospect and No. 38 wide receiver, C.J. Sanders arrived from Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif. in the summer of 2015 and immediately put himself in position for playing time, particularly as a return man.
Sanders began as Notre Dame’s top punt returner and then added kick return duties by the fifth game of his freshman season. He had a 30-yard punt return in his second game against Virginia, and then burst for a 50-yard punt return for a touchdown in Week 4 vs. UMass.
One week later, Sanders went 46 yards with the opening kickoff of the second half at Clemson (and fumbled). He added a 25-yard punt return two weeks later against USC. Sanders capped an impressive rookie season with a 93-yard score at Stanford.
As a freshman, Sanders returned 28 kickoffs for a 22.9-yard average and 25 punts for a 7.3-yard average.
After catching just one pass in his freshman season, Sanders burst out of the gate in ’16, starting seven games in the slot. In the first five games, Sanders caught 17 passes for 254 yards (14.9), including touchdowns in the first two games against Texas (in overtime) and Nevada (second quarter). Over the final seven games, however, he caught just seven passes for 39 yards.
Sanders fumbled twice in the return game in ’16, although he averaged 25 yards per his 29 kick returns and 12.5 yards on his 10 punt returns.
With the arrival of Chip Long as offensive coordinator this spring, Sanders’ role in the passing game became a bit sketchy as Long’s desire to get two tight ends on the field left Sanders with an undetermined role heading into the summer.
• Class: Jr. (Eligibility: 2)
• On The Depth Chart: No. 2 slot receiver behind Chase Claypool; third-team as outside receiver.
• Post-Spring Status: Unchanged
SANDERS AT HIS BEST
In addition to his hot streak out of the gate at slot receiver to start the 2016 season, Sanders’ breakout game on special teams came in the final week of the 2015 regular season when he returned six kickoffs for 182 yards, including a 93-yard score less than six minutes into the Stanford game.
“(Sanders) and (Chris) Finke would be certainly the exception to the (size) rule at the receivers. The offensive structure is such that we can use those guys. They have a place, they can be effective players, and they will be used accordingly.
“But you can see where this offense clearly is going. We’ve got depth at the tight end position, we’ve got big-bodied wide receivers. We’ve got a very physical offensive line and we’re very deep at the running back position. You guys can figure out where that takes you.”
BEST CASE SCENARIO
Sanders finds a niche among all those big receivers and continues to add the big-play dimension in the offense that he flashed in the first five games of the 2016 season. As an experienced kick and punt returner, Sanders settles in and nails down the No. 1 spot on both return units.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
Sanders could get lost in the shuffle at receiver with Equanimeous St. Brown, Kevin Stepherson, Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, Javon McKinley, Cameron Smith, Alize Mack and the rest of the tight end crew using its size to spark Notre Dame’s passing game.
The last Notre Dame player to handle both kick and punt returns as an underclassman – prior to Sanders -- was Julius Jones in the late 1990s, early 2000s. Jones led the team in punt returns as a freshman in 1999 (13.0-yard average) and 2001 (10.7) while averaging 23.2 yards per kick return in ’99, 28.5 in ’00 and 22.5 in ’01. Jones had a punt return for a score as a freshman in ’99 and a kick return for a touchdown as a sophomore in ’00.