WR Will Fuller opening eyes with his rapid ascension at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

LANDOVER, MD. — That Will Fuller has an opinion about teammate Corey Robinson’s new, more-conservative ’do (he liked it) in a twisted sort of way would make Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly smile.

Same for the Philadelphia product’s decisive cheesesteak preference of Pat’s King of Steaks over Geno’s.

It’s deep enough into Notre Dame’s football season that the lithe sophomore wide receiver’s dominance statistically is no longer considered fragile by opposing defensive coordinators, by the national media, or by just about everyone else, save the Biletnikoff Award folks.

Earlier this week, they expanded their Watch List for the nation’s best receiver from 75 to 80 candidates, with Fuller and his 43 catches for 583 yards and eight TDs not among them.

Recognition or not, Kelly says the next step in the evolution of Fuller, who came into the season with six career catches and has had at least that many in five of ND’s seven games, is acting the part on and off the field.

Decisive. Swaggering. Loud.

Fuller gets his next shot at no longer blending in Saturday night (8 EDT, CBS), with scads of family and friends in attendance, at FedExField in Landover, Md., as sixth-ranked ND (7-1) squares off with Navy (4-4) for the 88th consecutive season but only the second in primetime.

The Irish hope to counterpunch Navy’s triple-option offense with some passing-game pyrotechnics against the nation’s 101st-ranked pass defense and dead-last team (125th) in sacks, with a more-assertive Fuller.

“When you're the No. 1 (receiver), you have to be the alpha,” Kelly said. “I mean, this has kind of come on to him really quickly. From nowhere, he now has the most catches and is singled out as the guy. But it takes some time mentally to kind of bring that on.

“He's capable of doing that. I think he's got to carry himself more like that. He's got to have the confidence to walk around like that guy, and that's coming. You can see it every day. I can hear him the way he talks on the sideline in terms of wanting the ball. He's not there yet, but he certainly can get there.”

The evolution really began back at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, where Fuller was overshadowed by two higher-ranked prospects in the state throughout the recruiting process — Robert Foster, who ended up at Alabama, and Tyler Boyd, who stayed in state and selected Pitt.

Fuller’s best offers early were a mix of mostly regional FBS and FCS schools — Boston College, Bowling Green, Delaware, Old Dominion, Rutgers, Temple, Toledo, Towson and Villanova — in large part because he didn’t have much camp exposure.

But once he ran for the Penn State coaches at the Nittany Lions’ summer camp, they immediately extended an offer, and Fuller committed three days later.

Notre Dame was later able to flip him a couple of months later, in August 2012, during the Jerry Sandusky scandal as Fuller’s star continued to rise.

“Looking back, I don’t know why, but me and my mom always paid attention to that stuff,” Fuller said of his star rankings by various recruiting services.

He did end up a four-star prospect in the end, with impressive camp and all-star game performances boosting his recruiting buzz sort of after the fact.

But his size (164 pounds when he showed up at ND) still created plenty of doubters.

He is listed at 180 now, but that’s more wishful thinking than reality.

“I’m 173,” he said. “The most I’ve ever weighed in my life is 176.”

But Fuller doesn’t lack toughness — in his blocking, in his ability to catch balls over the middle, in his running with the ball on screens.

“Will is incredible,” said Robinson, ND’s second-leading receiver. “He’s playing out of his mind. He’s awesome, he’s fast, he’s strong, he can catch the ball. All those things have been there the whole time. It’s just it clicked for him.

“It’s not like he got anything new. Now he’s balling and it’s awesome.”

Opportunity did play a part, but Fuller leaped over others, including preseason sensation Chris Brown, to take full advantage.

With senior DaVaris Daniels suspended since Aug. 15, Brown came into the season as ND’s leader in career catches on the Irish roster with a modest 17. Tight end Ben Koyack, with 14, was the only other receiver with more than 10.

And he and Koyack, with one each, were the only two players on the active roster to have caught a pass in a game from repatriated quarterback Everett Golson.

Daniels had 49 receptions for 785 yards and nine TDs in 2013 —numbers that Fuller is on track to soon eclipse.

“I think Everett had more (chemistry) with Daniels than anybody else,” Kelly said. “It just evolved (with Fuller), you know.”

One of Fuller’s favorite things to do to build that chemistry in a game is to motion with his hand to Golson to throw the ball deeper, that Fuller will find a way to catch up to it and run under it.

Now Fuller simply has to catch up to the aura of a No. 1 receiver, now that he has the numbers.

“It really did come fast,” Fuller said. “Like after Michigan, I’m still like sitting in the back of the lines (in practice), letting people get in front of me. I got yelled at a couple of times for doing that. It’s just a mentality of knowing you’re becoming a leader and just doing things like that.”

He has always talked a good game on the field, though, was especially chatty during a 31-27 loss at Florida State in which he collected eight receptions for 79 yards and a TD.

Fuller was also in the middle of the game’s most controversial play, when Robinson scored on a two-yard pass with 13 seconds left, giving ND a 33-31 lead that was erased by an offensive pass-interference penalty.

The ACC officiating crew announced the call being on Fuller but later amended it the next day and said C.J. Prosise was the guilty party.

Fuller watched the replay “100 times” while waiting for the team’s charter flight back to South Bend to take off.

“I believe, myself, that we won,” Fuller said. “We went down there and played great, proved to the country we could play with anybody. So it was a tough loss, but I think we’re all over it now.”

Over it and moving forward, looking to take the next step toward another breakthrough.

“I've got a great model,” Kelly said. “I've got a guy like Michael Floyd that set a high standard that that's how you practice, that's how you play. …

"He's a threat every time you put him out there to the point where I'm trying to find situations where I can get him off the field," said Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock. "He's playing way more snaps than anybody else.

"Every time I'd like to take him out, I've got my finger on the call sheet on a play I'd like him to be part of."

ehansen@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @ehansenNDI

Notre Dame's Will Fuller scores during the first half of Notre Dame's 31-15 win over Syracuse. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)