Notre Dame WR Will Fuller has become a defensive nightmare

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Every scouting report filed on the Notre Dame football team’s offense is going to have Will Fuller somewhere near the top.

That’s a place of distinction the 6-foot, 184-pound junior from Philadelphia earned last season and solidified last week.

For a little guy, he can make a really big impact.

He’s not the fastest receiver on the field. He’s not the most athletic. For some reason, though, he’s the best.

Bet the ranch that Virginia defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has lost sleep this week trying to figure out how to contain Fuller.

After a freshman production of six catches for 160 yards and a touchdown against Air Force, Fuller caught fire.

“Freshman year, I won’t say I wasn’t good, but I wasn’t comfortable with all the routes,” Fuller said. “I wasn’t comfortable in doing what I had to do against a defensive back to make a route good for the quarterback to throw it.

“I’m a lot more comfortable, so I have a lot more freedom to be able to do what I want; just setting the route up.

“(Being the primary target) happened really fast last year. It was a quick turnaround for me. Working hard in sophomore (preseason) camp, then seeing it all unfold was pretty cool.”

It really did unfold quickly. Fuller caught four passes for 85 yards and a touchdown against Rice in the opener. His breakout game came the next week with nine receptions for 89 yards and a TD.

He was such an out-of-nowhere surprise that he wasn’t even included on the Biletnikoff Award “watch” list in 2014, which includes just about every receiver who had even thought about catching a pass.

Though no one was “watching,” the numbers were quite impressive.

Fuller ranked third in the country in TD catches (15), 21st in receiving yards (1,094) and 34th in receptions per game (5.8).

While he was putting together those monster stats, Fuller was also getting used to the attention — from the media and opposing defenses.

“I’m getting a lot better with (the media attention),” he said. “In high school, I couldn’t talk in front of the camera at all. I’m just embracing it all.”

He got a dose of what a defensive focus can be like in last week’s win over Texas. Fuller caught seven passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns, but realized he’s under constant scrutiny.

“(Against Texas) was the first time I didn’t have any success with the screen (pass play),” he said. “That was a lot different. I heard (Texas defenders) yelling out ‘Screen!’ before I even motioned over.

“We have plays that countered that. We’ll get other teams that they won’t do that.”

Fuller’s big-play potential was obvious on a 66-yard TD reception from Malik Zaire. Head coach Brian Kelly said the Irish are one of the few teams in college football who are comfortable throwing that long pass to the “wide” side of the field, which risks interception if not thrown far enough.

“It's kind of one of those things where it's hard to double cover him where he is,” Kelly said of Fuller’s effectiveness. “If he's to the wide field, if you roll the coverage to him, you have to play double-zone, which is going to open up a lot of things in the running game. So we kind of took our shots when we got them, and we'll continue to do that.

“He's also a really good route runner and can find himself open. We're not afraid to throw the ball to wide field and maybe push it over there, where other teams are hesitant at times. We're going to find him. We're going to target him. He's going to get the football each and every week, and he's in a position where he's difficult to double.”

“(Throwing to the wide side) isn’t anything I do,” Fuller said. “It’s the confidence the coaches have in us. The quarterback’s the one that has to make those long throws.”

The players around him are a big part of Fuller’s success. In Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle, Corey Robinson and Torii Hunter, Jr., the Irish have a group of quality veterans catching passes. Add in a very effective offensive line that can help three inexperienced running backs be productive, and a quarterback who is a threat to run or pass, and there are plenty of weapons for a defense to consider.

“We have a lot of experience (among all the receivers), with everyone coming back from last year. It’s motivation to see how good we can be,” Fuller said. “I never really embraced (the idea of being the ‘go to’ receiver). I worked at being humble, level-minded, and if the ball comes my way I catch it.”

Fuller’s plan is to take the experience from an amazing sophomore season and use it to make this season even better.

“Being more confident and comfortable with the playbook (will help this season),” he said. “I was talking earlier with some guys. (The coaches) feel comfortable about putting me in some different positions. Maybe I’ll be going into the slot, or the short side of the field.”

Wherever he goes, the defense will surely follow.

Fuller has earned it.

Notre Dame’s Will Fuller (7) runs in a touchdown during the Notre Dame-Texas NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)