C.J. Sanders' punt return propels Notre Dame past UMass

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s smallest player stood alone in a sea of green.

And the waters, with 3 minutes and 33 seconds remaining in the second quarter on Saturday, were plenty choppy. In a game in which they were favored to win by nearly 30 points, the Irish clung to a microscopic 21-20 lead over pesky UMass, which used three consecutive touchdown drives to quell a rabid crowd.

The No. 6 team in the country needed someone, anyone, to stand up and make a play.

Cue C.J. Sanders, the little freshman that could.

The 5-foot-8, 185-pound wide receiver, who claimed a starting job at the end of a dazzling fall camp, backpedaled a few steps and hauled in Logan Laurent’s punt at the 50-yard line. He didn’t encounter another human being until the 36, when Sanders squeezed through a crowd of white jerseys and emerged like a rocket on the other side. His golden shoes a blur, Sanders veered left to the 11-yard line, where he kicked up bits of black rubber and left lunging linebacker Steve Casali empty-handed on the turf.

“It’s something I’ve always had,” Sanders said of his ability to see the field and elude danger. “From game 1 to now, there’s been a big difference. I just feel like the game has slowed down for me. In game 1, I was thinking too much.

“Now, being able to trust my teammates and trust my abilities, that’s when everything kicked in.”

Sanders cruised into the east corner of the south end zone, on the opposite side of where Tom Zbikowski — another notable No. 9 — shed USC tacklers for a score nearly a decade earlier. He lifted both hands to the sky, stared into a mass of up-for-grabs humanity and was enveloped, lost in the eye of an exhilarating storm.

It took 11 seconds to shift momentum and end a six-year drought.

“Oh man, the rush of adrenaline…there’s nothing like your first one,” the grinning Sanders said after the game.

Sanders’ first career touchdown, which opened the floodgates on a 62-27 Notre Dame thumping, was also the first Irish punt return score since Golden Tate found the end zone on the road at Pittsburgh in Nov. 2009.

It was made possible by his blockers, who double-teamed UMass’ gunners on either side of the field.

“I think he's been close quite a few times,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We borrowed a couple guys from the inside to double outside and it gave him some room.

“He's a very shifty runner. He's got great vision and we did a nice job on the holdup, and he did the rest. It was a big play in the game, gave us some momentum and kind of turned the tide a little bit for us.”

Sanders’ ability has been molded by two great returners and Heisman Trophy winners that came before him — Michigan’s Desmond Howard and Notre Dame’s Tim Brown. His mother, who attended Michigan, connected the Irish freshman with Howard, a Super Bowl MVP.

And after a rocky debut in the win over Texas, Brown relayed some simple advice.

“He actually talked to me after game 1, just talking about how to stay calm,” Sanders said. “He told me his first play on a kick return, he fumbled. He told me to keep my head up and trust my ability.”

Sanders’ ability carried him into the end zone on Saturday, to a place few Irish punt returners have been.

A place he plans to frequent in the coming games and seasons.

“I can just tell that the guys know I have the ability to take it back,” Sanders said. “Now we just have to keep it rolling.”

Notre Dame rolled in the final two and a half quarters on Saturday, thanks in part to an exemplary special teams performance that included a 52.4-yards per punt average by Tyler Newsome, a thwarted fake field goal attempt by Jarrett Grace and Sanders’ 50-yard run to the promise land.

When the Irish were searching for answers, its smallest player came up big.

“I got my jitters out, and I’m ready to go,” Sanders said. “I feel like I’m mentally there, too, as far as how I feel about the game and the speed. I’m just ready.”

Watch Sanders' stepfather, former NFL player Corey Harris, react to the touchdown here:


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame's C.J. Sanders (9) celebrates as he crosses the goal line for a touchdown after returning a punt during the second quarter against the University of Massachusetts, Saturday, September 26, 2015 in South Bend. SBT Photo/ Becky Malewitz