Fuller's substance drowns out his words in ND-Clemson clash

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —That Will Fuller is even relevant enough to be in the middle of a strange, twisted and overblown Twitter storm this week says much more about his evolution as a receiver than anything else.

He has grown from a spindly and fleet 168-pounder with a short scholarship offer list of 12, dominated by schools like UMass, Villanova, Towson and Delaware, to a central figure in one of the most potentially defining games of the Brian Kelly Era of Notre Dame football.

In a matchup the Irish junior described plauditorily as “savage,” which some Clemson players have interpreted as off-putting, the social media nonsense has only added to the white noise enveloping sixth-ranked Notre Dame’s Saturday night visit to play the No. 12 Tigers (3-0) in Death Valley.

Clemson promise it’s going to be #savage.

“Two top teams playing,” Fuller defined of his seven-word tweet shipped out Saturday night shortly after Notre Dame (4-0) overwhelmed UMass, 62-27. “Everybody’s going to be watching. It’s going to be a real great game. That’s all I meant.

“If I said it like that, they probably would have taken it better.”

Fuller’s game is much more clearly defined. He is not only Notre Dame’s fastest player, a notion he unhesitatingly confirmed Wednesday night, he’s part of an offensive formula Kelly has been building toward since he arrived in December of 2009.

Kelly has had elite receivers. And he’s had talented tight ends and slot receivers. And there have been spurts and stretches of a Holtzian running game. But the sixth-year head coach feels he finally has all those pieces at the same time, and built around what may be his best offensive line.

The thinking goes if you double Fuller, as UMass did last Saturday, you expose your defense to getting gashed in the running game, leave the middle of the field open to get picked apart by the tight ends and slot receivers — or both. And if you don’t double Fuller, then Will Fuller is free to be Will Fuller.

Clemson, with the nation’s No. 9 defense overall and No. 3 against the pass, figures to be the litmus test that either legitimizes Kelly’s assessment or pokes holes in it.

Jumbo safety Jayron Kearse, 6-5 and 220, and standout, but normal-sized cornerback Mackenzie Alexander (5-11, 195), once involved in a recruiting tug-of-war with Notre Dame, figure to be most involved in trying to mitigate the nation’s No. 11 player in receiving yards per game (113.5) and No. 3 in TD catches (6).

“It’s a real similar game to Florida State last year,” Fuller said referring to a mega-hyped 2014 midseason matchup in Tallahassee, Fla., that ended up a 31-27 Irish loss. “Clemson has a great defensive back group. So did Florida State.”

What put Fuller in position to compete with the Seminoles last October 18 and figures to do the same Saturday night is going from a one-dimensional deep threat to a complete receiver.

Fuller caught all of six passes his freshman season (2013). But since the start of his sophomore year, he’s caught at least that many in a game nine times.

He has 22 catches so far in 2015, for 454 yards and six touchdowns — which is a trajectory that would challenge Golden Tate’s school record for receiving yards in a season (1,496).

His 22 career TD catches has him in a fourth-place tie on the ND career list with Rhema McKnight and Derrick Mayes and just five away from Chicago White Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija for second place.

Michael Floyd is the all-time leader with 37, a mark that’s reachable if Fuller stays at ND for four years. Suddenly, though, he’s popping up in mock drafts as a late first-rounder. ESPN’s Todd McShay listed him as the No. 32 prospect overall in the 2015 draft.

“Just the coaches believing in me,” Fuller said of the key to him personifying Kelly’s player-development mantra. “They could have given those (plays) to anybody else on the receiving corps.

“So I just took advantage of that and just worked as hard as I could to perfect the things that they wanted me to do. The results have been good so far. If they keep believing in me, I just keep pushing harder and harder at the things they want me to do.”

And pushing those around him as well, such as Chris Brown — ND’s second–leading receiver (16-178, 2 TDs) and a senior who will have a homecoming of sorts this weekend when the Hanahan, S.C., product returns to his home state.

“He’s always talking about some kind of soup with a crazy name,” Fuller said of Brown’s menu recommendations for the upcoming weekend. “He’s really excited for this game. I could see in his eyes, he’s ready.”

Fuller always seems ready, with a mental toughness he admits he doesn’t know where it came from and a penchant for consistency.

“I know I’m going to have chills up and down my back when I’m waiting for this game to start,” Fuller said. “I mean, I’ve been excited all week. I’ve been ready for this week for a long time.”

Savage or not?

“I just stay focused on what I have to do,” he said. “I don’t let things get into my head. I just let the past be my past.”



Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller (left), here celebrating a touchdown with team­mate Torii Hunter Jr. against Georgia Tech, found himself unwittingly at the center of a twisted social media storm this week. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)