What is the NFL missing and Notre Dame gaining in Will Fuller's return?
SOUTH BEND — He dropped the news so casually, and before he had even informed coach Brian Kelly, no less, that the media had to double back to make sure the verbal jolt was real.
“I need to graduate, and that’s what I came here for,” said junior Will Fuller, who proceeded to map out what he envisions the 2016 football season will look like for him.
At Notre Dame.
With senior teammates reminiscing all around him Wednesday after practice, the Notre Dame All-America candidate let the college football world know there will be a Senior Day for him too — in 12 months.
Saturday will be the final home game for many of ND’s 27 seniors and grads, with the CFP No. 4 Irish (8-1) hosting Wake Forest (3-6). But not Fuller.
ND’s leading receiver the past two seasons, and on a trajectory now to expunge or challenge many of Michael Floyd’s career records, follows in the path of current seniors Sheldon Day and Ronnie Stanley, both of whom deferred their NFL dreams a year for a degree and the hope for a national title run.
"Will has asked me why I came back and things of that nature. Why didn't I leave?” Stanley said Wednesday night. “We've had talks, and he takes things seriously when it's time to be serious. We have had those talks. He took it seriously.
"I think he's only going to improve as a player. That's the type of player he is. He wants to improve. People come back and think they can just stay the same and keep ballin' out. It's not going to happen.
“Will has a strong mind-set, and I know he'll come back and improve and be a top wide receiver like he is right now."
Fuller this season has 44 catches for 900 yards and 12 TDs. On a balanced offense that’s putting up its best rushing numbers in a couple of decades, the 6-foot, 184-pound Philadelphia product ranks 13th nationally in receiving yards per game, tied for fourth in receiving TDs and 16th in yards per catch (20.5).
“I am surprised he’s coming back, but mostly because of when it happened,” said Matt Miller, Bleacher Report’s NFL Draft lead writer.
“And just having been in this job as long as I am, you’re kind of skeptical when a kid says, ‘Yeah I’m going to come back to school,’ and it’s this time of year. You’re like, ‘Oh, do they really want to go ahead and put themselves out there like that?’
“But (Michigan State QB) Connor Cook did the same thing last year, and a lot of people kind of gave it the wait-and-see what happens in January. But I think with Fuller, the way he kind of said it, that his priority is to graduate and to be there next year, it’s a little surprising.
“But it really makes sense, because now they can focus on the stretch run and the playoff run and not have that kind of hanging over his head a little bit.”
Hours before Fuller made his declaration, Miller had concocted an informal 2016 mock draft and had Fuller going in the first round to the Atlanta Falcons with the 25th overall pick.
“A lot of other places make sense too, including Seattle at 20,” Miller said. “I think he’s better than Phillip Dorsett and better than Nelson Agholor, both of whom went in the first round last year. So even if you want to compare class to class, I think he’s way ahead of some of those guys who went in the first round last year.”
Analyst Scott Wright, of draftcountdown.com, saw Fuller more in the second- to third-round range had he come out for the 2016 draft.
Both Miller and Wright see dropped passes and Fuller’s slighter build as the areas where scouts will eventually scrutinize his game.
“If he can round out his overall game and show better hands, I think he can put himself into contention for a first-round spot next year,” Wright said. “When it comes to a vertical threat, he’s as good as it gets. He showed against USC he can run by and away from anybody, so there’s no question about him in that regard.
“Even if he is a one-trick pony, it’s still a pretty good trick that teams are going to be able to utilize. The question becomes: Is that all he’s going to be or can he be more than that?”
Fuller has certainly become more as a college player than most observers had ever imagined. Per Rivals.com, of Fuller’s 12 scholarship offers, as many came from FCS schools (3) as Power Five Schools. He was originally committed to Penn State before eventually flipping to the Irish.
What he looks like roughly three season later is not only one of the country’s best deep threats, but a guy who can open up the entire Irish offense. If teams try to man up on him, he usually makes them pay with long TD receptions.
If opponents bring safety help, it opens up the Irish running game and the middle of the field for other ND receivers and tight ends.
The Irish offense in 2016 will lose Stanley at left tackle, center Nick Martin, and fellow receivers Amir Carlisle and Chris Brown. But ND will get back quarterback Malik Zaire, running back Tarean Folston and tight end Durham Smythe, all of whom began 2015 as starters and all of whom suffered season-ending injuries in the season’s first two weeks.
As far as receivers go, the Irish add Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson from the 2016 recruiting class. Torii Hunter Jr., Corey Robinson, and Corey Holmes return as do a quartet of freshmen — C.J. Sanders, Miles Boykin, Jalen Guyton and Equanimeous St. Brown.
“He’s going to be great for us,” Fuller said of St. Brown, who is currently slotted behind Fuller on the depth chart. “Maybe he can play on the other side of the field from me. I can’t wait to play with him. He’s real explosive, fast. He’s tall. He has big hands, so he has everything to be a great receiver.”
And apparently a valuable mentor for one more season.
Fuller can help himself in 2016 while he’s helping his team, by beefing up his résumé by becoming more well-rounded, more polished.
“When you’re a smaller guy, you’re going to be looked at a little harsher (by the NFL),” Miller said. “With the big guys, you always talk about upside and catch radius and room to grow. With Fuller, it’s like, ‘You’re small and you’re fast. What else can you do?’
“He gets to kind of answer a lot of those questions now.”