The Notre Dame wide receiving corps could look vastly different in 2018. That status of Kevin Stepherson and Equanimeous St. Brown is already very much up in the air and Tuesday we learned that rising senior CJ Sanders will graduate in the summer and then seek a graduate transfer to play his final season of eligibility elsewhere.
The writing had been on the wall for a while that CJ Sanders was a potential transfer candidate given the reduction of his role in the offense this year. After an impressive start to his sophomore season a year ago, Sanders fell out of the wide receiver rotation completely and caught just one pass for no yards. Even yesterday with Stepherson and Chase Claypool not available, Sanders was not featured on offense at all.
Sanders did retain his role as the kick return man for the Irish this year but his impact was not felt this fall as it had been in years past. Sanders averaged just 22.6 yards a return – the lowest of his career – and did not return a kick for a touchdown after doing so three times the previous two years. In fact, Sanders was borderline electric on kick returns in 2015 and 2016. Here is he taking the first Stanford kickoff of the 2015 the distance after the Cardinal marched down the field and scored on Brian VanGorder’s defense.
The arrival of Chip Long as an offensive coordinator last off-season contributed to Sanders’ reduced role. Long prefers taller, bigger receivers for his offense. At 5’8″, Sanders didn’t quite fit the bill so it wasn’t a surprise when he did not crack the two deep over some of the younger receivers on the roster. Ironically, Sanders is one of the few wide receivers on the Notre Dame roster who has shown an ability to execute the wide receiver screen that is a staple of Long’s offense. Here he is scoring on one in OT against Texas last fall.
From a depth perspective, Notre Dame can sustain the loss of Sanders – even in the return department – pretty well. Notre Dame will have Claypool, Miles Boykin, Freddy Canteen, and Chris Finke back for certain in 2018. Equanimeous St. Brown could still decide to return for his senior as well given his NFL Draft stock wasn’t helped by the Citrus Bowl and was already fairly low to begin with. Javon McKinley who redshirted this season will be back in the mix along with 2017 freshmen Michael Young and Jafar Armstrong. The Irish also just signed a loaded wide receiver class with Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, and Micah Jones and are still heavily recruiting wide receivers Tommy Bush, Lawrence Keys, and Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Michael Young was back with Sanders on the return unit yesterday and figures to be a prime candidate to replace Sanders as the kick return man along with incoming freshman Braden Lenzy. Lenzy is a dynamic athlete with track speed who could easily be Notre Dame’s return man when the Irish host Michigan in September to kick off the 2018 season.
Sanders has some dynamic athletic ability. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if he catches on at a smaller program or a MAC level school and has a very good senior campaign. Here is wishing him good luck.