C.J. Sanders lets loose, helps ignite Notre Dame victory

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Robots have no place on the Notre Dame football team.

C.J. Sanders came up with that conclusion over the last couple weeks.

Remember C.J.? A couple weeks ago against Miami, the 5-foot-8, 185-pound sophomore kick returner/punt returner/receiver put himself in the doghouse by fumbling a punt he originally chose not to field into the end zone for a Hurricane touchdown.

It was instrumental in Miami scoring 27 consecutive points and nearly beating the Irish.

Saturday, in Notre Dame’s 44-6 Shamrock Series thumping of Army, Sanders earned himself a reprieve. He grabbed the opening kickoff, after a bounce, on the 8. The return was set to go down the middle. Instead, he saw the right side was open.

One burst, and it was all over. Nobody on Army’s team was going to catch Sanders. Twelve seconds later, the rout at the Alamodome was on.

“I tried to go back to playing football as C.J. Sanders," Sanders said. "Coaches coach, players play.

“I can’t be a robot. I have to play the way I’ve played since I was a kid. The right side was open. If the right side is open, make it happen.”

“Our plan was to kick off and try to go cover the kick,” Army coach Jeff Monken said. “It was a poorly kicked ball. It kind of wobbled down there and hit the ground. And, as it turns out, it should have been a lot better for us.

“Though it didn't hang any air very long, it took them a while to field the kick. I knew (Sanders) was a dangerous returner. He returned a couple of kicks for touchdowns. Great player. We just didn't have ourselves in position.

“We got the guys assigned to leverage the ball and contain the ball, and we got ourselves out of position. When the ball hit the ground, we probably had some guys just a little uncertain, and frankly one said, ‘I thought it was going out of bounds, and I backed off.’

“You can't do that. That's our job as coaches, to get those guys to do what they're supposed to do all the time. Disappointing, and not a great way to start a game where you're going to have to play just about perfect to have a chance to win.”

Since Sanders’ mistake against Miami, Irish coach Brian Kelly has been preaching the significance of being decisive and not second-guessing. Make a decision and go with it.

Sanders’ return punctuated the lesson learned.

“It clearly was one word. It was to be more decisive, and you could see that in the way he played today as a starter (at receiver) and on special teams,” Kelly said. “He was extremely decisive in everything that he did, and it showed itself. He learned a lot from that (Miami) game, and when he was indecisive, how bad things can happen. Another young player really in an unfortunate situation where we're losing a football game. It certainly wasn't on him, but he learned a lot about being decisive.”

“I learned my lesson,” Sanders said. “Sometimes you have to go through that to be the man you are today. I learned, and I’m going to come back stronger.”

Sanders admitted that fumbled punt still occasionally haunts him. He still tries to make sense out of what he did, then he snaps back into the company line and chooses to look forward rather than in the rear-view mirror.

“Play how I play,” is his new mantra. “Sometimes, I got into the mode of over-thinking it; trying to overdo it. That hit me in the Miami game. I was trying to do too much. I needed to just play as I’ve been playing football since I was a kid.”

A difficult situation, which led to him being passed by Chris Finke as Notre Dame’s No. 1 punt returner, was a terrible blow to his confidence. Positive vibes from his teammates served as his salvation and motivation.

“My biggest thing was just to rebound,” Sanders said. “After the (Miami) mistake I was down, but (my teammates) always believed in me. From that moment, I knew the belief was there from my guys. I wanted to go out and make a play for them.

“What put me over the top was, after the mistake, the high praise I got from them. That showed me the guys had my back. I had to go all out for them.”

He repaid them for that confidence 12 seconds into Saturday’s win.

Notre Dame’s C.J. Sanders (3) rcompletes his 92-yard kickoff return to open toe scoring in a 44-6 Irish rout of Army, Saturday at San Antonio, Texas. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)