Notre Dame special teams coordinator Scott Booker has made two promises to his players this year, and he’s been true to his word on both.
Before Notre Dame’s Week 2 game at Virginia, Booker said if the Irish executed a fake field goal correctly, they’d score — which they did when holder DeShone KIzer flipped a shovel pass to Durham Smythe, who got in the end zone in the first quarter in Charlottesville. Two weeks later, Booker said if Notre Dame blocked correctly on one of UMass’ pro-style punts, freshman C.J. Sanders would house it.
Not only did Sanders return a punt 50 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter — Notre Dame’s first punt return touchdown since 2009 — it came at a perfect time last Saturday. The Irish were lagging against a team far inferior to them, and Sanders’ return score was the jolt they needed.
“That put the hammer on the nail at that point,” cornerback Cole Luke said. “It was a close game. It was crazy, in our special teams meeting, coach Booker said if we run this the right way, we will score. And the crazy thing is, he said that for our fake against Virginia. And he’s like, ‘I’m one-for-one right now. If I tell you it’s going to happen, we’re going to score. I promise you.’ He’s like, ‘I won’t break a promise,’ so what do you know, we score on the punt return.”
With UMass having to punt from the back of its own end zone, Notre Dame took a calculated risk putting two players on the Minutemen gunners, which left them exposed for a fake they didn’t think was coming (UMass did fake a punt from deep in its own territory later in the game, which was snuffed out by Jarrett Grace and Greer Martini).
Sanders’ teammates have had confidence in him since early on in fall camp. The slot receiver from Sherman Oaks, Calif., returned a punt about 90 yards for a touchdown during a practice open to the media, and nearly took one back against Virginia. There was a feeling it was more a question of when, not if, Sanders -- who's received tips from Heisman winners Tim Brown and Desmond Howard (Sanders' mother went to Michigan) -- would find the end zone on a return.
“I was looking forward to that,” Sanders grinned. “They (UMass) have that pro punt style. We had the (play) set up, I just knew it would be perfect.”
The 50 yards Sanders ran on his return touchdown were more than Notre Dame had in 13 returns in 2011 (48 yards) and 21 returns in 2012 (46 yards). Those mind-numbingly atrocious totals improved in 2013 (106 yards in 15 attempts) and 2014 (195 yards in 23 attempts). Sanders already has 117 yards on a dozen punt returns through four games in 2015.
“He's a very shifty runner,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He's got great vision and did a nice job on the holdup, and he did the rest. It was a big play in the game, gave us some momentum certainly, and kind of turned the tide a little bit for us.”
Sanders’ touchdown was first score in a run of 41 unanswered points by the Irish, which allowed Kelly & Co. to sub in the second team offensive and defensive units for the entire fourth quarter. Sanders admitted he still has some work to do in learning when and when not to call for a fair catch, but through a third of the season, he said he’s rid himself of the first-year jitters.
“I feel like the game’s slowing down so much from then to now,” Sanders said. “I guess I just have a timer in my head, if the ball’s in the air too long, fair catch it. That’s just the biggest thing for me.”