Notebook: Notre Dame freshman C.J. Sanders emerges in return game
SOUTH BEND — Until recently, the worn storylines pertaining to Notre Dame freshman C.J. Sanders had little to do with his actual potential as an Irish football player.
It was all about the past — his acting career, his bloodlines (father Chris played at Ohio State and in the NFL), his extended family (stepfather Corey Harris played at Vanderbilt and in the NFL), his semi-famous friends, even a non-profit foundation bearing his name.
That changed Tuesday, when the shortest player on the Irish roster (5-foot-8, 185) popped up at the top of the depth chart at punt returner, ahead of junior Will Fuller.
“Not afraid at all,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly responded when asked if protecting ND’s leading receiver in 2014 from injury figured into the equation.
The grand unveiling for Sanders will be Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 EDT; NBC-TV), where the 11th-ranked Irish host Texas in the season opener for both teams. But Sanders has been electric during the media windows in practice this past month, running the football, wiggling and sprinting after the catch as a receiver, and in the return game.
“I think we have two real good ones, two really good options,” Kelly said of Sanders and Fuller. “We are splitting hairs probably with both of them. And I could see us going back and forth with both of them playing. But not hesitant and not afraid to play (Fuller) for fear of injury at any time.
“I just think C.J. just has kind of a unique knack of breaking some tackles and (is) hard to find sometimes and kind of comes out of there and pops out of there. That's why we went with him.”
Cody Riggs, now a rookie cornerback with the Tennessee Titans, and Greg Bryant, now a junior college running back at ASA Miami, shared the punt return chores last season, with Fuller logging his first and only career return for zero yards.
Sanders is also in the mix for kickoff returns along with seniors Amir Carlisle and C.J. Prosise.
For a team so heavy in returning starters, there still is a significant youth movement elsewhere on the depth chart.
Cornerback Nick Coleman, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, nose guard Jerry Tillery and linebacker Te’von Coney are the freshmen listed in the offensive/defensive two-deeps — all as No. 2s. Freshman Alizé Jones kind of is. He’s one of four players listed as the No. 2 option at tight end.
True freshman Justin Yoon is the place-kicker, with freshman walk-on and Texan Jeff Riney as the backup punter.
“I think the thing that stands out with me as it relates to him is he is so focused on just doing his job,” Kelly said of Yoon. “There's not a lot of things that kind of distract him. He's extremely focused. He's a very unique kicker in that he has very little spin on his ball.
“So you're not dealing with adjustments. His accuracy is pretty darned good. We've had to work on some of his operation times, but those are normal for a freshman.”
If Notre Dame used the “redshirt freshman” designation, the Irish would have eight more in the two-deeps. On offense it’s Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars at Nos. 1 and 2 left guard, Sam Mustipher at No. 2 center, Nic Weishar in the glob of No. 2s at tight end and No. 2 quarterback DeShone Kizer.
Defensively it’s defensive end Jonathan Bonner, with No. 1 punter Tyler Newsome on special teams and Montgomery VanGorder the backup holder.
Decoding the depth chart
Not always is there a straight-line hierarchy when it comes to Irish depth charts, particularly on defense.
Sophomore Bonner, for example, is listed as the backup defensive end behind junior Isaac Rochell, though sophomore Andrew Trumbetti is the likely Plan B option at both end spots.
And sophomore Jay Hayes is listed as Sheldon Day’s backup at defensive tackle, but freshman Tillery will rotate in to spell both Day and sophomore nose guard Daniel Cage.
Cage is a mild surprise as a starter, though Kelly had hinted the slimmed-down Cincinnati product (325 to 307) had surged late in training camp.
“Last year he would give us a couple of plays and then fatigue would lock up his brain,” Kelly said. “He would be in the wrong gap.
“He's in much better condition. He's so much more mature, understands our defense so much better. He was always off the charts in terms of his strength and foot quickness. Now he's bringing a lot of that for much more of the game in terms of number of plays.”
Kelly is still high on Tillery, the spring sensation and still a key figure in replacing injured starter Jarron Jones, out for the season with a knee injury.
“Keep in mind, Jerry is playing two positions for us,” Kelly said, “so we have asked him to do a lot more than we are asking Daniel to do. That's not necessarily an easy thing to do as a true freshman, but he's pretty unique. We needed that.”
Some other depth chart notables:
• Incumbent Carlisle and junior Torii Hunter Jr., are listed as co-No. 1s at slot receiver. The same goes for Chris Brown and Corey Robinson at outside receiver.
• Sophomore Nyles Morgan and grad student Jarrett Grace are both listed as No. 2 at middle linebacker behind captain and reigning MVP Joe Schmidt.
• Saturday night will represent the first time Texas has opened a season with a true road game since a 1995 trip to Hawaii.
• The Irish begin the game ranked No. 2 and one spot ahead of Texas on the all-time FBS wins list with 882.
• Saturday marks the 12th night game in Notre Dame Stadium history, with the Irish holding a 9-2 mark in the previous 11.