Notre Dame WR Will Fuller making most of opportunities

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Confidence can have its roots in frustration.

Just a sophomore, four games into his role as a key component of the Notre Dame football team’s offense, Will Fuller is hardly in a position of power.

Not yet, anyway.

The 6-foot, 180-pound receiver isn’t the most talkative guy on the Irish sideline. But when it comes to a challenge from head coach Brian Kelly, Fuller’s not one who is going to back down.

On Notre Dame’s third possession of the scoreless first quarter against Syracuse, the Irish faced third-and-four on their own 38. The Orange defensive strategy was to pile the pressure on quarterback Everett Golson. That made quick passes to receivers on the perimeter the best option.

Fuller’s number got called on that critical third down. He caught the pass, but couldn’t extricate himself from the grasp of Syracuse linebacker Luke Arciniega. Three yards didn’t cut it. The Irish were forced to punt.

Kelly wasn’t happy or impressed. After the series, the coach had a talk with Fuller.

“I said to him, ‘I think you’re a better player than that,” Kelly said. “He said, ‘Coach, get me the ball again on that same screen and I’ll score.’ He did.

“That’s the kind of player Will Fuller is. He’s an explosive player. He’s an exceptional player. We have to keep on him, keep pushing him to be great. He can be a great player. He has a tendency to ‘act young,’ if you know what I mean. He’s an exceptional player who has to act like an exceptional player.”

Fuller made the most of that second chance. First down on the Syracuse 23, Fuller caught the short pass, cut back across the grain, and found a seam to the end zone.

“I’ve always had great confidence, but I was just a little aggravated with myself after that one play,” Fuller said. “I should have gotten more than the first down. I had a lot of room to run.

“I knew that was the call (as he came onto the field before the touchdown). We worked on that all week. I’m just happy it (worked then).

“The first one (that didn’t work), I tried to cut it up too early. The second, I followed my blocks. Anyone could have (made that big play). It was wide open. I was just running.”

Actually, running – and maybe catching, too – is what Fuller does best. He had a 72-yard touchdown pass to go along with the play with which he was able to make amends.

Fuller caught six passes for 119 yards and the two scores against an Orange defense that was vulnerable to the quick dumps. Heading into Saturday’s battle with Stanford, Fuller leads Notre Dame with 25 catches for 344 yards and five TDs.

“He's a young guy that is gaining confidence, and I just think he has a lot of ability that we're really trying to get him to think in those terms, really believe in himself,” Kelly said. “I believe in him. At times, I want him to carry himself in that fashion, ‘You get me the ball, I'm going to make plays.’

“We're kind of my conversations with him are leading in that sense, that I want him to feel that way and act that way. When he does, you see what he can do.”

So, what’s the biggest difference between this Will Fuller and the freshman who caught six passes for 160 yards and a touchdown?

“It’s just getting an opportunity to play,” Fuller said. “I’m taking advantage of it. Playing hard.

“Route running and releasing (has gotten better). I’m doing a better job getting off of bumps (at the line of scrimmage).”

Likewise, looking Kelly right in the eye and answering his challenge is uncharted territory.

Confidence is a process.

Irish WR Will Fuller continues to make progress toward becoming a big-play guy.SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES