Notre Dame freshman C.J. Sanders credits patience for early surge

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

It’s been a while since Notre Dame football fans looked forward to a punt return.

For the first time in the Brian Kelly era, the Irish have a legitimate weapon.

It may have taken a bit of courage to entrust a freshman with such a vital job, but C.J. Sanders isn’t just any freshman.

The 5-foot-8, 185-pound California export is averaging 10 yards on his 14 punt returns. His dynamic approach to the game, coupled with an innate ability to accelerate, then change direction on a dime, makes for an elusive target for the kicking team.

But ask the youngster his secret to success, and he certainly won’t credit speed.

“(The position) requires patience,” Sanders said. “Nothing comes overnight. Trust coach (Brian) Kelly, trust (assistant) coach (Autry) Denson, trust my ability. I can’t force anything.

“There are a lot of times when I have to fair catch. I have to be patient and trust the guys around me.

“(The most important thing in developing patience) is time. Through the process of the first few games, it took some time to get to where I am now. I’m just kinda feeling the game out; learning the speed; learning when to fair catch; the hang time. The time will give me that experience.”

There was nothing patient about Sanders’ burst onto the scene as an immediate contributor. He ran back a punt 90 yards in a preseason practice open to the media, catching the attention of the coaches and visitors. From there, he steamrolled his way into the rotation. Once getting regular reps, he proved himself as someone who could make an impact.

What goes through his mind when the ball leaves the foot?

“Make a play,” is Sanders’ only mission. “What I like about the kick returns and the punt returns is being able to make a spark for my team. Being able to make a play is pretty cool.”

Sanders cemented his spot as a regular punt returner when he brought a UMass boot back 50 yards for a touchdown.

“UMass changed me tremendously,” Sanders said. “There’s nothing like the first one. Once you get the first one, you have the need for more.

“The most important thing (Kelly) taught me was to be myself. At the beginning, I tried to force it. I made a few mistakes, but I’m really thankful for them trusting me through the process. Now, I feel I’m in a league where I can really ball-out and be a playmaker for my team.”

One of those mistakes was a bad one. He fumbled twice in the rain-soaked Irish loss to Clemson, one of which — on the second-half kickoff — was recovered by the Tigers. The trust coaches have for him was bigger than the turnover.

In fact, a couple weeks into the season, more was added to Sanders’ plate. He replaced Amir Carlisle as the deep man on kickoff returns. He is averaging just over 24 yards on 12 returns.

“I needed (being behind Carlisle for the first couple games),” Sanders said. “Amir’s a great player. I was able to learn from being behind him. Seeing how Amir approached the game, his work ethic, really helped me overall.”

There’s been a lot of learning going on for the former child actor who made enough money through TV and movie appearances that he bought his mother a new Mercedes S500 as a senior in high school. Adjusting to the culture of the Notre Dame football program has been a positive experience.

“Culture is pretty important,” Sanders said, while spending time with his teammates at a children’s program in Elkhart earlier this week. “We talk about that a lot. It’s more than football. It speaks for the quality that we have in our program. The guys we have in our locker room are really close.

“(This event) goes to show we can have an impact on our community around us. That sort of impact will make me into a better man. It’s just a lot of guys doing good things.

“(The older guys) have been very accepting (to a freshman). They just want me to be myself. They want me to be the best I can be in a lot of different areas.”

No hurry. Patience is a big part of that process, too.

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