Voices from the past and present inspire C.J. Sanders' ascent at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The voices still matter to C.J. Sanders.

There's father Chris Sanders, a former NFL wide receiver who at 6-foot-4 towers over the 5-8 Notre Dame sophomore receiver/return specialist and there is stepfather Corey Harris, whose 12-year run as an NFL defensive back consisted of stints with six teams and a Super Bowl ring.

And at one juncture, when the elder Sanders was with the Tennessee Titans and Harris was with the Baltimore Ravens, Harris found himself defending Chris Sanders in a game.

“Pretty funny, right? But everybody’s cordial now. And I kind of had the best of both worlds,” said the younger Sanders, set to make his second career start at wide receiver Saturday for the 18th-ranked Irish (0-1) against Nevada (1-0).

He still does.

Both men, as well as mom Stacie Harris — a former basketball player at the University of Michigan — will be part of the 250th consecutive sell-out crowd at Notre Dame on Saturday.

“My dad taught me from a receiver standpoint how to dissect coverage and how to make plays,” C.J. Sanders said. “And then on the flip side, since my stepdad played DB, kind of having that DB mindset as well, kind of what he’s thinking, things like that.”

Another voice that matters these days, as Sanders transitions from special teams specialist to a more all-purpose player who can significantly impact the Irish offense, is that of ND junior DeShone Kizer.

His six-TD performance (five passing, 1 running) Sunday at Texas, that broke a protracted No. 1-quarterback stalemate with senior Malik Zaire, was paired with a powerful message to a young Irish receiving corps that will be without its only seasoned member, Torii Hunter Jr., on Saturday

“Before the game, (Kizer) kind of talked to us and got in front of us,” Sanders related, “and said, ‘Hey, I don’t care how young you are, I know you guys can make plays.’

“Just kind of hearing that from him developed a comfort level, knowing he can depend on us. Hearing that from him kind of made a big difference.”

How that manifested in the 50-47, double-overtime loss against Texas were three catches for 55 yards, including a 25-yard catch-wiggle-and-run for a TD in the first overtime for Sanders in his first career start.

“C.J. showed some wares,” Notre Dame associate head coach and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock said this week on WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat radio show.

“When he caught the ball, particularly underneath the defense, his brain, I think, automatically flips to, ‘Now I’m a punt returner and here I am in space with the ball my hands.’ And the things that he can do with the ball in his hands as a runner is pretty impressive stuff.”

His actual 40-yard punt return highlighted his special teams prowess, as Sanders finished with 181 all-purpose yards, the 20th-best total nationally, on the season’s opening weekend. Fellow sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown shined with a game-high five catches for 75 yards and two scores against the Longhorns in his first start.

Coming into the Texas game, the receiving corps beyond Hunter had combined for two career catches, eight receiving yards and zero career starts.

The passing game dynamic shifts significantly, though, Saturday, with Hunter sidelined with lingering concussion symptoms. Coach Brian Kelly made the announcement of Hunter’s game status at — of all things — Notre Dame’s Friday night pep rally.

Hunter suffered a concussion late in the third quarter at Texas on a helmet-to-helmet hit from Longhorns safety DeShon Elliott, in the end zone. He finished with four catches for 37 yards and a TD.

Junior Corey Holmes and freshman Kevin Stepherson, with zero career catches between them, will tag-team in Hunter’s absence. But the Nevada defense, with Hunter out, is likely to shift its attention to St. Brown and Sanders, meaning fewer one-on-one looks for them.

“The biggest thing is next man in,” Sanders said philosophically. “I know whoever’s going to be there, the guys are ready to ball out and make plays.”

The more plays Sanders makes, the less pronounced his impressive non-football past stands on his personal résumé.

That includes a run as a child actor that included the role as the young Ray Charles in the Oscar-winning 2004 film “Ray” and an array of TV show cameos. On his 18th birthday, when he was legally able to touch his acting money for the first time, Sanders bought his mother a car.

Sanders took acting seriously, even at age 5. He visited a blind school, so he could learn the mannerisms as he portrayed someone losing their sight.

The football parallel was this spring and summer rehabbing from hip surgery, or more to the point what he did beyond physical rehab. Sanders suffered a hip flexor strain in the early days of spring practice that was so severe he said the muscle tore off the bone.

“There were days I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom,” he said. “But I knew even before the surgery, I’d be back 100 percent.”

In the four months between the surgery and feeling 100 percent, he kept pace by saturating himself in film study, and he watched good friend Chris Finke take some of his reps in spring practice and evolve from walk-on to scholarship player.

“I’m really proud of Chris,” Sanders said. “And I learned a lot from watching him, too — the ins and outs of route-running.”

Sanders already had the return part down last year. He was one of nine football players in the FBS, and the only freshman among them, to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. Only four Notre Dame players in school history preceded him in that feat.

Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown (1987) was not among them. He had both, not just not in the same season. Those who did, besides Sanders, comprise Joe Heap, Rocket Ismail, Allen Rossum and most recently Vontez Duff (2002).

And now the shortest player on the Irish roster wants more.

“It’s a grind,” he said of his expanded role, “kind of going back and forth between the two. Because of my size, nothing’s been handed to me, so I’ve always had to go the extra yard. … And I just feel I’m able to be a difference-maker. When the balls in my hands, the game slows down. And I’m loving it.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s C.J. Sanders (3) runs in a touchdown in overtime during the Notre Dame-Texas NCAA college football game on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, at Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN