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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 3 C.J. Sanders, receiver and returner

Nevada v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: C.J. Sanders #3 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with teammates after his seven-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-8, 185 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with two years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: Sanders will presumably lead the way at both kick and punt return while also backing up sophomore Chase Claypool at the Z, or slot, receiver position.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Sanders’ speed gave him the pick of many of the country’s top-flight programs, including Tennessee, UCLA and Stanford. Obviously the No. 37 receiver chose Notre Dame, though it should be noted his father’s alma mater, Ohio State, did not come calling until too late in the process.

There are two aspects to Sanders’ stats. As a receiver, he hardly saw the field as a freshman before getting off to a great start last year. Then, his momentum came to an abrupt halt, catching only seven passes for 39 yards in the final seven games despite starting four of them. He started seven games total, spread throughout the season.

As a returner, Sanders has been a dynamic force from day one. His success with punt returns earned him kick return duties about halfway through his freshman season, and he has not turned back since.

2015 receiving: One catch, no yards.
2016 receiving: 24 catches for 293 yards and two touchdowns.

2015 punt returns: 25 returns for 182 yards, an average of 7.3 yards per return, and one touchdown, a 50-yard score against Massachusetts.
2016 punt returns: 10 returns for 125 yards, an average of 12.5 yards per return.

2015 kick returns: 28 returns for 640 yards, an average of 22.9 yards per return, and one touchdown, a 93-yard score against Stanford.
2016 kick returns: 29 returns for 725 yards, an average of 25.0 yards per return, and two touchdowns, a 93-yard score against Syracuse and a 92-yard return to open the game versus Army.

Irish coach Brian Kelly’s only mention of Sanders this spring came in highlighting the difference between Sanders and most of the rest of Notre Dame’s receivers, big and tall targets such as the 6-foot-4 ½, 224-pound Claypool.

“[Sanders] and [junior Chris] Finke would be certainly the exception to the rule of the receivers we have,” Kelly said at the end of March. “But they have a place in our offense and they’ll be used accordingly. The offensive structure is such that we can use those guys. They have a place, they can be effective players.”

Last year’s slot receivers, Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter, combined for 10 rushing attempts and 60 catches for just over 700 yards and three touchdowns. I think it’s safe to say that Sanders will surpass those 10 rushes, but won’t touch that catch count.

“Still, there’s an explosive receiver waiting to be unleashed in Sanders, who won’t benefit from having Will Fuller pull a safety to the sideline, but should have plenty of room to operate. If he can sneak up the seam and work with the Irish quarterbacks, he’ll have chances to make big plays.

“A good season for Sanders is: A) staying healthy B) catching 40 footballs and C) getting another return touchdown (or two). I think that’s where he ends up this season.”

With a plethora of seemingly-dangerous receivers, one of Notre Dame’s pass-catchers is going to be left on the outside looking in at opportunities within a high-scoring offense. Sanders seems a likely candidate, given offensive coordinator Chip Long’s apparent penchant for size. Between using Claypool at slot and frequently opting for two tight ends, Long does not leave many openings for a 5-foot-8 speedster. For that matter, as much as Long’s tendencies may suggest Sanders’ role in the passing game may be minimal, the last half of his 2016 did not do the junior any favors, either.

At the same time, though, perhaps Sanders’ speed can be utilized as an unexpected change of pace. Slip him in among the giants and let him cut loose. In that scenario, seven catches over seven games could net much more than 39 yards.

Until he has an increased role in the passing game, there is no reason to think Sanders will not continue returning punts and kicks. Suddenly he could find himself in school-record company. The Irish record for career kickoffs returned for touchdowns is five held by, obviously, Raghib Ismail (1988-90). George Atkinson III (2011-13) holds both the record for kickoff return yards and returns with 2,136 yards off 88 returns.

To date, Sanders has returned 57 kickoffs for 1,365 yards and three touchdowns in only two seasons.

As long as Sanders gets chances to make plays on returns, he will have chances to impress the coaching staff with his playmaking abilities. At some point, that should yield consistent offensive playing time. Granted, he is halfway through his collegiate career, but he has also produced more overall in the past two seasons than many players do in four years.

There is also the possibility Long opts for a more traditional slot receiver either this season or next. Sanders would have competition for that honor — namely Finke and Michigan graduate transfer Freddy Canteen, who has two years of eligibility remaining including this season — but he would be in the mix and likely the front-runner.

2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, cornerback
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety
No. 11: Freddy Canteen, receiver
No. 10: Chris Finke, receiver
No. 9: Daelin Hayes, defensive end
No. 8: Donte Vaughn, cornerback
No. 7: Brandon Wimbush, quarterback
No. 7: Nick Watkins, cornerback
No. 6: Equanimeous St. Brown, receiver
No. 5: Nyles Morgan, linebacker
No. 4: Te’von Coney, linebacker
No. 4: Montgomery VanGorder, quarterback

No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship