Notebook: A happy return for Notre Dame freshman C.J. Sanders

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — C.J. Sanders had to live down not only getting tackled Saturday by Clemson’s kickoff man, Ammon Lakip, but letting him jar the ball loose for one of Notre Dame’s four turnovers in the 24-22 road loss.

The Irish freshman’s reappearance at the top of the depth chart late this week at kickoff returner speaks to his thick skin, his resilience and his dynamic style in the return game.

The man he displaced last Saturday, graduate student Amir Carlisle, still got second-team reps this week. Freshman running back Dexter Williams also got an extended audition, per coach Brian Kelly.

But Sanders, already the top option on punt returns, appears in position to add to his duties as 15th-ranked Notre Dame (4-1) welcomes Navy (4-0) to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.

The 5-foot-8, 185-pounder is averaging 9.1 yards per punt return, the best of the Kelly Era. His 117 punt return yards to date are more than Notre Dame amassed as a team over an entire season in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Sanders’ sample size on kickoff return is much smaller. His 46-yard return against Clemson, the first of his career, is the longest of ND’s 12 this season. Even the one in which he fumbled went for 25 yards and is the third-longest.

Personnel matters

Kelly said recovering starting guard Quenton Nelson practiced Wednesday and Thursday, but his availability against Navy will be a game-time decision.

Nelson, a 6-foot-5, 325-pound sophomore, suffered a high ankle sprain at Clemson and was replaced in the lineup by fellow sophomore Alex Bars.

• Kelly said ND’s best blocking tight end, sophomore Tyler Luatua, had a good week of practice and remains on track to see his first playing time in three weeks Saturday.

A concussion sidelined Luatua from ND’s past two games.

Reservations over reserves?

The ND coaching staff entered the season convinced that one of the strengths of the Irish defensive line was its depth.

So far, it’s a muscle that hasn’t been flexed very much.

Other than the Daniel Cage/Jerry Tillery tag team at nose guard, the most tackles amassed through five games by a backup defensive lineman so far is three (Doug Randolph, Jonathan Bonner and Andrew Trumbetti), which is one more than punter/kickoff man Tyler Newsome has collected.

Sophomore Jay Hayes, listed as the No. 2 defensive tackle behind Sheldon Day, hasn’t played a down yet. He was deleted from the active roster for Notre Dame’s Sept. 26 win over UMass for an overactive Twitter finger.

But he made the travel roster for Clemson the following weekend.

“We have confidence and trust in them,” Kelly said of the second line of defense. “And I think some of the younger players, if we had to go to them, we would be fine with them.

“We just hadn’t had to go to them in a rotation. It just hasn’t presented itself. I would not read into it that there’s a lack of confidence as much as our frontline guys have been healthy and their volume is up and they’ve played really well.”

Mixed signals

As former Notre Dame running back Greg Bryant waited well over a month to make his junior college debut for first-year program ASA Miami, the academically exiled junior increasingly posted old pictures of himself in an Irish uniform on his Instagram account.

Notre Dame’s second-leading rusher in 2014 even hinted at a reunion with quarterback and close friend Malik Zaire in 2016. And at one time, that door was open.

But he also posted a small smattering of grainy highlights, with a handful of schools he was presumably interested in, including Louisville, Arizona, Virginia Tech and UAB.

Bryant’s lack of communication with Kelly around his transfer, after indicating initially he would return for the fall semester and get himself eligible, didn’t exactly foster a possible reunion. Kelly said Thursday night the two have still not spoken since the transfer.

Without Bryant, the Irish rank 13th in the nation in rushing this season. If that standing were to hold up over the course of the season, it would be the highest by an ND team since coaching icon Lou Holtz’s final season, in 1996.

Should the nation’s 12th-leading rusher, senior C.J. Prosise, exercise his fifth-year option, the Irish would have a crowded backfield in 2016 even without Bryant. Junior Tarean Folston, ND’s leading rusher in 2014, is expected to recover from a season-ending ACL injury.

Freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, converted wide receiver Justin Brent and 2016 commitment Tony Jones Jr., give the Irish quality and quantity at the position in 2016.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame freshman C.J. Sanders remains a central figure in the Irish return game. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)

WHEN: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 14 1/2