At 5-8, C.J. Sanders Has Become Notre Dame's 'Space Eater'
In football or basketball, the term “space eater” is reserved for behemoth figures whose mass clears the way for teammates to shine.
For Notre Dame’s 5-8, 180-pound sophomore slot/return man C.J. Sanders, it conveys a different definition: Get him the football in space and he will eat up the yardage.
A teaser was provided in 2015 when the freshman worked exclusively on special teams and finished fourth on the squad in all-purpose yardage with 822. He joined Joe Heap (1952), Raghib “Rocket” Ismail (1989), Allen Rossum (1996) and Vontez Duff (2002) as the lone Notre Dame players to return a punt and kickoff for a score in the same season — and the first to do so as a freshman.
This season that role has expanded to slot, where Sanders is a prototype for the YAC (yards after catch) role on tunnel screens, quick hitches or dig routes that get him into open space and showcase his elusiveness.
He made three clutch grabs for 55 yards in the opener at Texas, including a 25-yard score off a tunnel screen in the first overtime in which he navigated through the middle while making about a half dozen defenders miss. He did the same in the fourth quarter on a 40-yard punt return that set up a temporary go-ahead touchdown for the Irish.
Against Nevada the next week, Sanders set up one touchdown with a 37-yard kick return, another with a 24-yard punt return, and scored once himself on a diving catch in the end zone.
Stage fright is a non-issue for the former child actor whose many roles included playing a boyhood Ray Charles in the 2004 film “Ray” that won Jamie Foxx an Oscar. Meanwhile, Sanders' football acumen was honed by father Chris Sanders, an NFL receiver from 1995-2001, and stepdad Corey Harris, an NFL defensive back from 1992-2003.
“Being able to get that kind of coaching from both sides of the ball, I kind of know what the defense is going to do before they do it,” Sanders said. “My dad taught me from a receivers standpoint how to dissect coverage and how to make plays in space.
“Then on the flip side, since my stepdad played DB, kind of having that DB mind-set as well, what he’s thinking … when I’m running the ball, I kind of know what the DB is doing or what he has in his mind. Reading coverage and being shifty is really important.
“I’m not the biggest guy in the world, but with [receivers] Coach [Mike] Denbrock I’ve been able to read coverages and break away from defenders.”
Sanders can be viewed as a miniature version of another C.J. — as in Prosise, who rushed for 1,032 yards last year at Notre Dame and is now a rookie with the Seattle Seahawks. The 220-pound Prosise apprenticed at slot in 2014, where his explosiveness prompted the staff to get the ball to him about six to 10 times per game in space either on returns, usually short passes or on jet sweeps while in motion. Get Prosise in some space, and speed killed.
Denbrock has joked that Sanders makes every catch or touch into a punt return, but the sophomore used 2015 as a training ground to become a more polished route runner and pass catcher while apprenticing behind the graduated Amir Carlisle at slot. Now the top slot man, Sanders said his expanded role on offense makes him feel like an overall better player, which has enhanced his return skills as well.
“I’m not a thinker,” Sanders explained. “The game is moving so fast, I’m not able to think; I’m just able to react. I just love having the ball in my hands. It’s like the game slows down.”
Sanders is not sure if he’s the fastest player on the current team — he’s been timed anywhere from 4.32 to 4.42 in the 40 and won the Tennessee Division II state title in the 100 meters (10.76, although he has run a 10.64, too) and 200 meters (21.88) as a junior before moving to California — but his speed is enhanced by “economy of movement” and football instincts.
“I don’t know about the fastest, but I might consider myself the quickest.,” Sanders said. “There are different types of speed. There are guys who get to full speed fast, and there are guys who can maintain it after 30 yards. Shaun [Crawford] is faster than me in the 100; I’m faster in the 40-to-60 range. Equanimeous (St. Brown) and Miles (Boykin), they’re faster after 30 yards … I hit my top speed at 10 and I just maintain it.”
It’s safe to say he is on a fast track toward continued prosperity.
At 5-8, sophomore slot C.J. Sanders is the shortest player on the 2016 Notre Dame roster.
“Nothing has been handed to me from my size alone, so I’ve always had to go the extra yard,” Sanders said.
In fact, seldom since the start of the Ara Parseghian era in 1964 have we seen a Notre Dame player officially listed at 5-8 or shorter. Here were the best over the past 50 years:
1. Reggie Brooks (1989-92) — The 5-8, 200-pound tailback finished 5th in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a senior, became a second round pick and rushed for more than 1,000 yards as an NFL rookie.
2. Allen Rossum (1994-97) — Listed 5-8, 180, the speedster started three years at corner and set an NCAA record for most touchdown returns via kickoffs, punts and interceptions (nine total) before becoming one of the best ever NFL return men.
3. Joey Getherall (1997-2000) — At 5-7, 175, he was a third-team All-American punt return man as a senior with a 16.3 average and two TDs, but he also caught 74 passes for eight TDs during his career and scored three more times on running plays.
Note: Gerry Faust signed two 5-9 dynamos in 1981 with wideout Joe “Small Wonder” Howard and 1982 with 5-9 tailback Allen Pinkett.
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