Notre Dame fans got a sneak peek Tuesday at future wide receiver C.J. Sanders, and the diminutive speedster might finally be the answer at slot receiver that Brian Kelly has been looking for since arriving in South Bend.
Sanders, who committed to Notre Dame in early May, was one of the top performers at The Opening, Nike's elite summer football camp, where the SPARQ National Championships took place. Running a blazing 4.32 seconds on the 40-yard dash and a ridiculous 3.80 on the 20-yard shuttle, Sanders made the event's finals and cemented his place among the most electric athletes in the country.
At 5'8.5" and 175 pounds, Sanders looks like a prototype slot receiver. And he could quickly find his way onto the field for the Irish, playing a position where the Irish have struggled to find a natural fit.
After getting great success from the position at Cincinnati, Kelly has mixed and matched as he's searched his roster high and low for a good fit.
In 2010, the Irish moved Theo Riddick from running back to the slot, with Kelly predicting dynamic results that never came. Riddick put up just 414 receiving yards, modest production considering Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph were also on the field. Riddick's numbers flatlined in 2011, as he managed a meager 436 yards before finishing the year in the backfield as a running back.
In 2012, the Irish essentially gave up on a traditional slot receiver. They platooned miniature journeyman Robby Toma with jumbo-sized Daniel Smith, who served primarily as a blocker while only chipping in seven catches in 13 games.
The Irish have had bad luck at the position as well. Top recruit Davonte Neal, who looked like the future of the position, transferred after one season. Smith's season-ending injury early last year turned the spot into a revolving door, with Kelly and then-offensive coordinator Chuck Martin putting tight ends Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack on the edge, mostly to block.
Heading into 2014, Notre Dame has converted running back Amir Carlisle platooning with converted safety C.J. Prosise in the slot. They're hardly traditional choices. And while many expected incoming freshman Justin Brent or sophomore Torii Hunter Jr. to get a shot as the inside receiver, neither spent any time there in the spring; both will currently provide depth from the outside.
Getting back to Sanders, his performance in Oregon will likely see the undervalued receiver's stock jump exponentially.
A ratings boost is almost assured, with 247Sports' composite rankings viewing Sanders as just the 364th-best player and 47th-best receiver in the country. And with Michigan and Ohio State both kicking the tires on Sanders but not offering him, the blazing speed he showed—combined with a pretty impressive highlight reel—should translate to a few more offers coming his way.
But if Sanders' performance in testing tells us anything, it's that Kelly and the Irish coaching staff do a very good job identifying receivers early in the recruiting cycle. While skeptics point to Kelly's struggles landing top blue-chip prospects at receiver, Kelly has done just fine with below-the-radar recruits.
While DaVaris Daniels profiles as the closest thing to an elite receiver that Kelly has signed, the Irish look to be in great shape with Chris Brown, Corey Robinson and Will Fuller. That trio will likely play a very large role for the Irish in 2014, and at the time of their commitments, you'd have thought the Notre Dame staff was reaching for all three players.
Sanders will play his final year of high school football in California at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks after playing previously in the Nashville, Tennessee, area at Brentwood Academy. The step up in competition (not to mention the matching school name and uniforms) should better prepare him to walk onto campus and compete immediately.
Entering his fifth season, Kelly has recommitted to the spread attack he ran at Cincinnati. While there's still another season to go before Sanders takes the field for the Irish, he looks like he could play an integral part in the high-powered passing offense.