For Notre Dame football, where there's a Will (Fuller) ...

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — “Break-out game” is just a phrase to Will Fuller.

The sophomore receiver for the Notre Dame football team refuses to pigeon-hole his performance against Michigan with such a concept.

It’s more of a foundation, on which to build a special season.

The slender 6-foot, 180-pound Fuller caught nine passes for 89 yards and a nifty 24-yard fade for a touchdown against the Wolverines.

“It’s a big step up, but I don’t think it was a break-out game,” said Fuller, who had just six catches for 160 yards and on TD last season. “I have a lot of room to improve. If I can just keep working, maybe I’ll have an even better game.”

After the victory over the Wolverines, Fuller felt the “press” coverage, in which Michigan defenders picked him up right at the line of scrimmage, was somewhat of a lack of respect for him.

“All wide receivers need to have that kind of demeanor when it comes to ‘press’ coverage and man-to-man coverage,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Look, it’s you against the defensive back.

“We’ve kind of obviously taught these kids from day one when we’ve installed this offense, if they’re going to take away the run, we’re going to throw the ball as many times as we have to to win football games, and you have to win.

“That’s the demeanor we want from our wide receivers. ‘If we call your number, you’ve got to go get the ball.’ ‘On third down or fourth down, we call your number, we expect you to make a play.’

“We want that demeanor. We want that attitude. They’ve got to have that edge to them when it comes to man to man coverage.“

Add to the Michigan totals four catches for 85 yards — including a 75-yard catch and run — against Rice, and Fuller might legitimately qualify as Notre Dame’s go-to receiver as the Irish head into Saturday night’s Shamrock Series battle with Purdue at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

The absence of DaVaris Daniels, who cannot practice or play while an academic fraud investigation plays out, opened the door for someone to step up into the role of leader.

Fuller made the most of the opportunity.

“He’s done a great job being patient with his routes; understanding the defenses; understanding how to get corners off him,” Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson said of Fuller. “One thing that works in his favor is speed. He’s been a deep threat. A lot of corners play off him.

“He’s not the only guy we have. I guess he’s just been the feature guy the past two games. We’ve got a couple guys like that.”

It hasn’t been the easiest of roads for Fuller. As a rookie last year, confidence was an issue — confidence in himself, as well as the coaches’ confidence in him. He had a problem with the “catch” part of a catch and run sequence.

“His drops are specific,” Kelly explained, “specific to wanting to turn quick; short routes where he stops his feet, (trying to turn them) into bigger plays. When he’s moving his feet, he’s pretty good. His concentration … He looks at the ball into his hands, so they’re specific.

“We took down his drops, and they’re specific to him getting the guys away from his catch. We can really say, ‘Look, here’s what you’re doing in these specific instances.’

“He dropped a hitch route; he dropped a quick screen into the boundary; and it was simply just pulling his eyes away from the catch, so we can work on those things.”

“Keep running out of my break, and keep my eyes (focused) through the catch,” has been Fuller’s approach to solving the inconsistencies. “All my drops, I don’t look it in.”

“Really, for us, we think that the emergence of Will has been in that he’s using his hands,” Kelly said. “We knew his ability to track down the deep ball. He had real good eye control, and his ability to track the ball vertically was really good.

“Where he’s made great progress since the spring is his ability to flash his hands and really aggressively go get the football. Once he started to do that, we saw that through camp, we felt a lot more comfortable being able to take advantage of those short matchups, as well.”

Fuller, a man of few words, just shrugs at the assessment. It’s nothing he learned, or has taken a lot of time to perfect.

It’s just natural.

“(The top-end speed) came pretty natural. I don’t know where I got it from,” Fuller said. “Just keep working hard, every chance I get. On my breaks, I hope I can just get a better connection.

“(If there’s a problem, it’s) getting out of my breaks; in and out of my cuts. I have to set up my routes with my speed more. It’s mostly technique. We work on our breaks during individual time and hope it translates onto the field.”

Purdue has struggled against the pass in its two games this season — against Mid-American Conference teams (yielding 207.5 yards a game). It’s a safe bet that the Boilermaker secondary hasn’t seen a receiver the caliber of Fuller — or any other of the Irish receivers, for that matter.

“I don’t think it’s about (Purdue), it’s about us,” Fuller said, downplaying the matchup. “If we do what we have to do, we’ll be fine.”

“We really like that match up (with Fuller) on the outside,” Kelly said. “As you could tell, we kept going back to it (against Michigan).

“People are going to play off him, so he’s going to get some of those ‘quick game’ slants because of his outstanding vertical speed. That development we saw in preseason camp, and that’s why he’s getting some of these opportunities on some of this quick game.”

A quick passing game, off a three- or five-step drop by Golson, has worked successfully so far. Fuller has found a comfort zone on the slant, or the fade in the end zone.

“Looking it all in,” is his recipe for a catch. “Just made sure I catch. I feel like I always catch those, fading back and jumping up.

“It gives me a lot of confidence. I still have to keep up that connection with Everett during practice. In practice, I have to make sure I go through my reps hard so we keep up the timing.”

Speed was a big part of what got Fuller to Notre Dame in the first place. Originally a Penn State commit, he found a home with the Irish before the native of Philadelphia attracted national attention.

“He tracked the ball as well as any guy that we recruited,” Kelly recalled. “His ball skills were outstanding. The way he tracked the ball down the field, we didn’t see a kid who could do that. Also, his top-end speed was outstanding. Tracking the ball with that kind of speed is a rare commodity, and those are the two things that stood out.”

“Me and (Chris Brown) talk about who’s faster,” Fuller said. “He said that I have the 0-to-60 (edge) and he has the 40-yard dash (edge). I don’t know where (the speed) comes from, but that’s how the screen (pass) works.”

So….. Does Brown really have the 40-yard dash advantage?

“I don’t think so.”

The one time when Fuller didn’t use that top-end speed kinda came back to bite him. He enjoyed the heck out of the 75-yard scoring reception against Rice. In fact, Kelly thought, as he slowed down en route to the end zone, he might have enjoyed it a bit too much.

“I wasn’t even thinking,” Fuller explained, as he tried to plead innocent. “I can’t even explain it. I was just excited. (Coach Kelly and I) had a talk. I’m not going to do that again. I’ll just run into the end zone and give the ball to the ref.”

Maybe that could be considered as a “break-out decision.”

Or just another cornerstone on which to build.

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Notre Dame's William Fuller breaks away during the first game of the season for a touchdown against Rice. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)