Notre Dame WR Will Fuller steps into spotlight with dream season

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Don’t pinch Will Fuller too hard. He’s afraid he might wake up.

The Notre Dame wide receiver still hangs on to the mindset of a high school football player trying to make his dreams come true.

“Before I even got here, I never thought I could play on TV or any of this stuff,” Fuller said. “It's still a dream.”

The stuff, as Fuller puts it, included a much bigger role as a sophomore than he could have imagined. His second-year campaign resulted in 71 catches for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns and all kinds of school records.

No sophomore has caught more passes or touchdowns than Fuller has this season. He sits just 43 yards behind Golden Tate’s sophomore record for receiving yards. A touchdown catch in Tuesday's Music City Bowl against LSU would tie Fuller with Tate (2009), Rhema McKnight (2006), and Jeff Samardzija (2005) for the most receiving touchdowns in a season at Notre Dame.

Fuller added a Notre Dame Offensive Player of the Year Award to his resume earlier this month. It all came to player who caught just six passes as a freshman.

“Last year I hardly played. This year at the beginning of camp I wasn't even starting,” Fuller said. “I felt like I was going to be a role player. It's still a dream.”

Fuller developed into the No. 1 receiving option in the absence of suspended wideout DaVaris Daniels. The Irish needed someone to step up, but few predicted Fuller would be the one. Even Fuller admits he thought it would have to be more of a collaboration.

“We knew someone needed to step up, and we took that on as a group thing,” Fuller said. “We didn't really want anyone to step up and take DaVaris' role not knowing if he was going to play this season. We're all young and we knew it was going to have to be a team effort."

By the end of the regular season, the chasm between Fuller and the rest of the receiving corps proved wide. He caught 31 more passes than anyone else on the team. His receiving yardage totaled 498 yards more than any teammate. And the rest of Notre Dame’s offensive players combined for just one more touchdown catch (15) than Fuller caught on his own.

The ascension became a bit of reality after Fuller’s nine-catch, 89-yard performance against Michigan. He caught more passes in that game that his entire freshman season (six). Fuller caught at least six passes in seven games this season.

“After my touchdown against Michigan, I really felt great about myself and the team,” Fuller said. “We were playing great. That was my first sign of consistency.”

Fuller did a little bit of everything in the passing game. He became a dangerous weapon on deep balls and short screens. He even served as a possession receiver at times.

What stood out above all was Fuller’s speed on the field.

Even against Florida State’s defense Fuller showed an elite burst. Fuller, who considered himself more of a route-runner than a blazer in high school, has credited strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo and his staff for improving his speed.

“I didn't really have it in high school,” Fuller said. “I really looked at myself as a quick route-running type of guy. I just translated that with my speed that I have now and put them together.”

At 6-foot and 180 pounds, Fuller has room to develop physically. But his production put him with elite company this season. His 14 touchdown catches rank second in the FBS and equal the total for Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, a Heisman Trophy finalist and winner of the Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s top receiver. Fuller caught a touchdown pass in all but two games for Notre Dame this season.

His biggest challenge will come in the Music City Bowl. LSU boasts the nation’s top passing efficiency defense. Only three FBS teams have allowed less passing yards per game (162.3).

“They’re an aggressive, press-man team that gets right up on you and dares you to throw the football,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “They have a lot of similarities to Michigan State in the way they play their corners. They’re just going to go up there and lock you down and dare you to throw the football in one-on-one situations.”

Preparing each week against Irish cornerback Cody Riggs, who played four seasons at Florida before transferring to Notre Dame, has given Fuller a good idea of what to expect from LSU.

“They're the same as any other SEC school's DBs. They're all aggressive,” Fuller said. “They have a confidence about them. Just like Cody. We've been playing against Cody all season so we have a feel for what we're going to be going against."

The challenge of playing against LSU in a bowl game is just the latest in a series of dreams Fuller won’t forget the details of when it ends.

“I've been watching LSU my whole life,” he said. “They always produce great DBs. It's a great opportunity to go up against what the nation calls the No.1 pass defense."

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

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