Notre Dame WR Will Fuller confident in connection with Zaire

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Despite what voters for the Biletnikoff Award may have ignored, Notre Dame's Will Fuller emerged as one of the most productive wide receivers in the country last season.

Repeating the production of a season with 76 catches, 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns, which ranked third nationally, will be a challenge on its own. Doing it with a different quarterback adds a layer of complication.

Or does it?

Fuller’s last touchdown of the season, a 12-yard reception against LSU in the Music City Bowl, came from the left arm of Malik Zaire. And as the Irish enter the 2015 season, Fuller has expressed confidence in the chemistry between the two.

“So far it’s been good,” Fuller said before camp started on Friday. “It’s the same thing with every other receiver. He’s real outgoing and he gets us out there throwing on a daily basis. We’ve been doing a lot.”

The biggest difference between former starter Everett Golson and current starter Zaire may come from the mouth.

“He’s a lot more vocal,” Fuller said of Zaire when asked to identify the biggest difference between the two. “He talks a lot more. I think he’s a better leader than Ev.”

If any of Zaire’s traits have been discussed more than his running ability, it has to be his leadership. It’s a narrative that will carry through the preseason and likely won’t be challenged until the team hits its first speed bump. Until then, everyone appears to be pledging allegiance to the club's new quarterback.

“He’s the best leader on the team,” Fuller said. “He’ll get the defense and the offense going. He’s ready to compete with whoever it is. If we’re having a bad day, he gets up and talks to the team. He’s a great leader.”

How that influences Notre Dame’s offense and consequently the success of the 2015 Irish will be less perceptible than Zaire’s ability to make plays. But Fuller believes Zaire’s confidence impacts the wide receiver group. Whether or not Zaire can make all the throws needed to lead Notre Dame’s offense has yet to be seen by the public. Fuller, however, has seen enough.

“Malik can do anything any other quarterback can do,” Fuller said. “He has a great arm. He’s real smart. With more reps, he’ll get better with controlling the offense. He’s going to do a great job leading us this year.”

Fuller won’t measure Zaire’s success by comparing his personal stats from last year to this year. He plans to get open and be ready when needed.

“I never think of a certain number,” Fuller said. “If my name gets called, I try my best to do what’s best for the team. If they need me to score or get a catch, anything can happen.”

The most predictable difference for Fuller this year will be how defenses focus on stopping him. He’s no longer Notre Dame’s best-kept secret in the passing game. He will likely see double coverage, safeties shading over him and cornerbacks trying to be more physical to prevent him from beating them deep.

Fuller has a plan to combat that: adding strength and learning new receiver positions.

Fuller, listed at 6-foot, 184 pounds on Notre Dame’s roster, said he added eight pounds over the summer and has started to feel the difference from a concerted effort in the weight room. He’s also trying to soak up all the knowledge he can from associate head coach and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock.

“Last year I just looked at myself as the X receiver,” Fuller said. “This year, I’ve really stressed learning the Z position and the W position so I can put myself in a better look.”

Drops were Fuller’s biggest flaw as a sophomore. Now as a junior, Fuller wants to erase those mental lapses.

“I had a lot of drops last year. That’s really embarrassing as a player getting drops that are wide open,” Fuller said. “Just staying more consistent and staying focused (is the goal).”

Fuller embraces stepping into a role with more responsibility. With a wide receiver group with no turnover from last season, Fuller wants to guide his teammates into making leaps like he did a year ago. It’s all a part of his evolution into a No. 1 receiver.

“I look at myself as a leader now on the team,” Fuller said. “I have to be a lot more consistent this year – helping the young guys and bettering my game and taking it to the next level.”

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

Notre Dame’s Will Fuller (7) jumps by LSU’s Kendell Beckwith (52) for a touchdown during the Music City Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN