Notre Dame Football Practice

C.J. Sanders (3) during Notre Dame football practice on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, at LaBar Practice Field at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

C.J. Sanders sleeps with his dreams under his pillow.

The 5-foot-8, 185-pound sophomore has been doing so since he was eight years old, when his parents first encouraged him to keep track of tangible goals. He wrote them down on a piece of paper, folded it up and stashed it away.

Years have passed, goals have changed and scraps of paper have come and gone, folded over and crumpled up from countless nights sandwiched against the mattress.

But the ritual remains intact.

And as for his current goals? There’s only one worth sharing.

“The team goal is a national championship,” Sanders said on Thursday. “We call ourselves ‘Team 12.’ We want to be the (program’s) 12th championship team.”

Though the list’s contents remain a secret between the wide receiver and his trusty pillow, Sanders — who returned both a punt and a kick for touchdowns in his freshman season — admits that his immediate success was not a surprise, but an expectation.

“I’m a quiet guy. But in the back of my head, I believe that (I’m capable of return touchdowns),” Sanders said. “I’ve always dreamed of doing those things, so my goal was to make plays. I didn’t really tell anybody that was my goal. I kept quiet, but I believed it the whole time.”

So, to recap, here’s a rough draft of the aforementioned goals:

Return a kick/punt for a touchdown in freshman season (check).

Win a national championship (still working on it).

Nowhere on Sanders’ scrap of paper does it mention an injury, or a surgery, or months spent relegated to an electric scooter while awaiting a return to the field.

But then again, life doesn’t always stick to the script.

“I made a cut full speed and (the muscle) just tore off the bone completely,” said Sanders, who suffered a hip flexor strain while running a route in practice in late March. “My left hip. It just tore right off the bone.”

The most frustrating part of Sanders’ roughly four-month rehab wasn’t that pesky scooter, the physical therapy, or the sudden separation from the game he has grown to love.

It was the looks. The pity. The idea that, for the first time in his life, he needed more than will power and rare athleticism to cross off another goal.

“I’m a person with no handouts,” Sanders explained. “I’m 5-9. I’ve always had to work for everything I’ve gotten, and all the help I was getting kind of got on my nerves. I’m thankful for the help, but that was the biggest thing for me.

“I’m not a pity person. I want to work for everything that I get.”

Nearly five months later, Sanders is healthy. He’s back to work.

And even despite the injury, Sanders’ intensity hasn’t changed.

“Even from day one, I didn’t think about my leg,” he said. “I’m still going to cut full speed all the time. I’m not going to be hesitant. I only live once, so I’m going to make the most of it.”

Without departed wide receiver standouts Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, his team needs Sanders to make the most of his sophomore season.

And this time around, the Granada Hills, Calif., native isn’t the only one creating goals.

“C.J. Sanders has got to be able to play more of a prominent role,” head coach Brian Kelly said as camp opened last week. “As you know, he got his toes wet a little bit in the special teams game, and we saw his ability there. Now it's going to have to show itself as an inside receiver.”

As Notre Dame wraps up its first full week of fall camp, Sanders — the team’s most diminutive wide receiver — is the clear-cut starter in the slot. As the Z receiver, he can catch screens. He can take hand offs. He can breeze past linebackers and safeties across the middle or down the seam.

He can return kicks, sure. But every day, he’s finding new ways to make an impact.

“It’s bigger than just me,” Sanders said. “I’m able to affect the game, not only in special teams but on offense. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Like always, a new season presents new challenges — and new goals. Luckily for Sanders, he knows just where to put them.

“A lot of people talk about last year, but it’s a new year,” said Sanders, who occasionally pulls out the scrap of paper and reads it before going to sleep. “Our motto this year is just, ‘Be different.’ Who cares what everybody on the outside thinks? We’re young, blah blah blah. We’re still going to make plays.

“(Wide receivers) Coach (Mike) Denbrock is a great coach. He’s on us heavy, but he’s doing it for a reason. So we’re thankful for him, and we’re going to deliver.”

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Twitter: @mikevorel

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