After a big season as a return specialist, CJ Sanders looks poised to take his talents to slot receiver. Gone is a starting trio of All-American Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle. While Torii Hunter slides into the primary role, Sanders seems custom built to succeed at the Z, where Brian Kelly has yet to coach a guy with Sanders’ physical traits.
Getting past offseason hip surgery was the first step. And early reports out of camp have Sanders operating at full speed—Kelly’s optimistic outlook at Sanders’ rehab (finally) proving true.
With a chance to be a game-breaker as a returner and run-pass threat in the slot, a big season could be on the way for Sanders.
5’8″, 185 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 3, WR
After a blazing 40-time at placement at the SPARQ finals at The Opening, Sanders vaulted into a national prospect, even with his diminutive size. A four-star recruit, Sanders had offers from Georgia, Tennessee, UCLA, USC and Stanford before picking Notre Dame in the spring.
An offer from Ohio State never came, a school Sanders followed that had family connections. But by the time Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes staff came calling, Sanders was already locked up.
Freshman Season (2015): Only the third player in Notre Dame history to return both a punt and kickoff for a touchdown. Appeared in all 13 games, making one catch for no gain.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
Special teams star? Got it.
As much as I like Sanders, it’s hard to find a way where he’ll make a sizable impact on this offense, unless an injury limits Carlisle. (Then again, Greg Bryant’s suspension all but completes C.J. Prosise’s transition to running back.) But it’s too soon to tell if Sanders is advanced enough from a football IQ perspective to jump into the lineup.
But where he could shake things up is on special teams, likely serving as an upgrade in the return game, potentially taking over for Greg Bryant on punt return. (I’d kick the tires on Sanders as kickoff returner as well.)
Sanders shouldn’t be looked at like a normal freshman. He had a successful acting career as a child (stop me if you’ve heard this one, but he played a young Ray Charles in the film Ray…), accelerating his maturity process while also building some bulletproof confidence. That’ll help with the big stage that is Notre Dame Stadium.
Realistically, I’m pegging the return game as Sanders’ likely home. That hasn’t been kind to freshmen (we’re still waiting for Davonte Neal to break a return), but Sanders shows better instincts. He’s also a wonderful candidate for the “designated deep ball receiver,” a role dating back to Golden Tate, then passed along to Chris Brown and Will Fuller that usually means you’re destined for good things.
Sanders is a critical piece of a receiving corps that still needs to sort quite a bit out. If he’s a lock for the Z position, it helps everybody else—allowing Hunter to move from side to side and the Irish staff to only focus on who replaces Chris Brown on the boundary.
We’ve seen Sanders do some special things already on the field. But we’ll see if he’s able to scale that playmaking when he’s given more opportunities. At his size, he needs to be blazing fast. He also needs to show the vision and ability to move and operate in tight spaces if he’s going to thrive in the slot.
Getting past the hip hurdle was a big first step. Learning on the job is the next. Sanders is capable of being the best slot receiver of the Kelly era. That’s not all that high of a bar, but with a chance to be a three-year starter, that’s still saying something.
Last year’s slot receivers, Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter, combined for 10 rushing attempts and 60 catches for just over 700 yards and three touchdowns. I think it’s safe to say that Sanders will surpass those 10 rushes, but won’t touch that catch count.
Still, there’s an explosive receiver waiting to be unleashed in Sanders, who won’t benefit from having Will Fuller pull a safety to the sideline, but should have plenty of room to operate. If he can sneak up the seam and work with the Irish quarterbacks, he’ll have chances to make big plays.
A good season for Sanders is: A) staying healthy B) Catching 40 footballs and C) Getting another return touchdown (or two). I think that’s where he ends up this season.
2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Torii Hunter Jr.
Tony Jones Jr.
Troy Pride Jr.