Vision allowing freshman RB C'Bo Flemister to find role as Notre Dame's kick returner

Tyler James

If the ball didn’t make it into the end zone, C’Bo Flemister was supposed to return the kick.

Those were the direct instructions from Zebulon (Ga.) Pike County head coach Brad Webber. Flemister was told to stand just inside the one-yard line and catch anything in front of him.

He did just that to start the game against Peach County last October. Then he returned it 99 yards for a touchdown. He found a crease from his blockers, made the kicker miss and ended up in the opposite end zone in less than 12 seconds.

Pike County lost that game 49-21, but Webber won’t forget how Flemister started it.

“Opening play of the game he took it to the house,” Webber said. “Peach County’s loaded. He outran all these jokers. It was unbelievable.”

Notre Dame’s hoping to find a little bit of that kick return magic from Flemister too. Just two games into his freshman season, Flemister made his debut as the Irish kick returner against Ball State.

On his first return Saturday, he caught the ball at the three-yard line and found a crease from his blockers again, but this time he didn’t break free. Flemister dodged one Ball State defender and shrugged off another before Hank Grenda wrestled him down by his left leg to end the 23-yard return.

“He just has a unique way of contorting his body, finding that crease” Webber said. “He about broke that first one the other night if he got that leg out of there. It would have been interesting to see him get out and run.”

Flemister finished the game with three kickoff returns for a combined 65 yards. His longest effort came on a 26-yard return in the second quarter.

Flemister might not have been at the top of the list of freshman candidates for Notre Dame’s kick return role.

Wide receivers Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III, and cornerback TaRiq Bracy had all worked as returners in high school.

But Flemister’s experience as a running back has translated well to kick return. Head coach Brian Kelly identified Flemister’s vision as a skill that separated the 5-foot-11, 196-pound back in the preseason.

“Didn’t have a résumé really, quite honestly,” Kelly said. “We were just trying to look for guys that we felt like had shown some things in camp in the first week or so that had pretty good vision and could hit some things.

“Again, he’s still learning. He missed a cut that he saw on film this week. I still think we’re evolving at that position as well. We think he’s talented. He’s a guy that we can count on being a good kick returner for us moving forward.”

Flemister’s senior highlight reel is a little more than nine minutes long. His only kick return clip comes just 36 seconds into the video. It’s his 99-yard touchdown against Peach County.

This time last year, Flemister was a two-star recruit committed to Georgia Southern. By the time he finished his senior season with 2,348 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns, the likes of Georgia Tech, Tennessee and Notre Dame came calling.

Webber never doubted that bigger schools would be interested in Flemister. He slipped under the radar early in his high school career when a broken collarbone knocked out most of his sophomore season. The injury didn’t dampen Flemister’s passion for football.

“That was devastating,” said Flemister’s father, Ronnie. “But he was on that sideline every Friday night, cold, raining, whatever. He rooted his boys on. That’s C’Bo. He still worked. He went to practice with them every day. He was at every game whether it was at home or away.”

Even though his father didn’t play football, C’Bo Flemister took up the game at just four years old. He didn’t take long to score back then either.

“He was four years old on the Gold Pirates,” Ronnie Flemister said. “I’ll never forget it. He ran his first touchdown about 75-80 yards.”

C’Bo Flemister’s always been a running back. His nickname, which is short for C’Borius, even sounds like he was born to play running back. C’Bo knows how to carry the ball.

Flemister may have to wait a while to receive work in Notre Dame’s backfield with Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. receiving the bulk of the carries in the first two games, and Dexter Williams expected to return to the lineup for the Stanford game.

On Monday, Flemister wrote on Twitter, “Just waiting on my moment.”

His first opportunity came against Ball State with his father watching from the stands. If he can continue to be a threat to break a long return and hold onto the ball, Flemister should have plenty more chances to make his mark fielding kickoffs.

“It was refreshing,” Ronnie Flemister said. “Him being able to do that with Notre Dame — you can go to college anywhere, but Notre Dame — that’s just the biggest accomplishment ever. That was amazing. It really was.”

ABOVE: Running back C’Bo Flemister at Notre Dame’s media day Aug. 15. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN