Notre Dame MVP Will Fuller reverses field, reopens his options

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Will Fuller found an interesting way Friday night to sort of outrun his uncomfortableness with talking about himself and his newly received Most Valuable Player award.

Shift the focus to 2016 — which apparently is way more open-ended than it was just a month ago.

“I’m probably going to keep my avenues open, talking to coaches,” the junior wide receiver said at Echoes 15, the Notre Dame football end-of-the-season awards show, which once upon a time used to be a banquet.

“I sent in my papers (to the NFL Draft Advisory Board) just to see where I’m at. And I’m just going to pray about it and talk to my family about it and make the best educated decision that I can.”

Fuller’s revelation in the backroom of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center that an NFL Draft early entry is back in play — though by no means a certainty — comes a month to the day that, unprompted, he announced he was returning to ND for his senior season.

What changed?

“Just talked to my family,” he said.

Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, one of the three other finalists for MVP (along with QB DeShone Kizer and defensive tackle Sheldon Day), was way more vague about his pro intentions.

“Honestly just the Ohio State game is where my focus is,” he said Friday night of eighth-ranked Notre Dame’s Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl opponent. “I’ve discussed (it) with family and things like that, but we all agreed that what matters the most is beating Ohio State.”

Smith, recently anointed with the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker, garnered one of the other 14 awards dished out Friday night at DeBartolo — ND’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Smith is projected as a top five pick overall if he enters the draft, Fuller a high second-rounder or late first-rounder at this juncture. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is Jan. 18.

“I thought he was going to win (MVP),” said Fuller, who sat next to Smith Friday night. “He thought I was going to win it, so it was pretty funny.”

But he was also humbled by the fact it was the one award distributed Friday night that was put to a vote of the Irish players.

So far Fuller has garnered second-team All-America status from Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and USA Today, with some of the most prestigious teams yet to be announced in the coming week.

For the second straight season, the under-recruited Philadelphia product led the Irish in receptions (56 in 2015), receiving yards (1,145) and TD catches (13).

“It was a real fun night,” Fuller said. “Everybody cleaned up nice. Hannah and her husband, they really hosted it well, and it was fun, like it always is.”

That would be Notre Dame alum and ESPN/ABC personality Hannah Storm and hubby Dan Hicks, the play-by-play voice of ND’s telecasts on NBC.

They took a turn at comedy, almost Don Rickles style in its good-natured but biting edge. At one point they singled out grad senior tight end Chase Hounshell and introduced his career highlight video.

It lasted seven seconds.

The players got into the act via video features, with junior offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey taking a shot of center Nick Martin’s old shoulder-length hair and saying that he looked like “a very big chick” before cutting it.

And former walk-on cornerback Connor Cavalaris had his ’do described by a teammate as looking like TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres,

The creators of the show saved the best for last. They took scenes from the ND documentary on Showtime, A Season With Notre Dame Football, and had quarterback Malik Zaire and defensive lineman Jay Hayes, dubbing in their teammates’ and coaches’ voices in a “bad lip reading” segment.

“Jay is one of the funniest guys on the team, so I expect that out of him,” Fuller said. “I didn’t know Malik had those skills.”

The slick production, the menu, the music and the pacing aren’t the only parts of the end-of-the season celebration that have changed from the banquet days. The actual awards used to be sort of the undercard to what was just a few years ago considered the most pivotal recruiting weekend of the season.

It’s still important, but with the recruiting calendar having moved up so much, it’s on a much smaller scale.

Two standout uncommitted prospects took in Echoes 15 and the unseasonably warm South Bend weather. They were Caleb Kelly, a 6-3, 219-pound linebacker from Clovis West High in Fresno, Calif.; and defensive back Jordan Fuller, a 6-2, 205-pounder from New Jersey state champ Northern Valley Regional High in Old Tappan.

That latter’s mother, incidentally, used to tour with Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones as a backup singer.

Nine committed recruits, including recent five-star linebacker commit Daelin Hayes, were also on hand.

Perhaps the most contested award of the night was ND’s “Next Man In” Award, given all the injuries the team has sustained and transcended. It was taken home by senior running back C.J. Prosise.

Prosise is still actually out for the moment and unable to practice, still recovering from a high ankle sprain suffered Nov. 21 against Boston College. He said Friday night he hopes to resume practicing next week.

True to the unselfishness of this Irish team, when Prosise was asked to identify his best moment of the year, he responded that it was freshman running back Josh Adams’ 98-yard run against Wake Forest.

Junior wide receiver Will Fuller (7) of Notre Dame, here making one of his 30 career TD receptions, has opted to enter the NFL Draft. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

Most Valuable Player: Will Fuller, WR, Jr.

Offensive Player of the Year: Ronnie Stanley, OT, Sr.

Defensive Player of the Year: Jaylon Smith, LB, Jr.

Next Man In: C.J. Prosise, RB, Sr.

Rockne Student-Athlete: Jarrett Grace, LB, Grad

Pietrosante Award: Chris Brown, WR, Sr.

Father Lange Iron Cross: Romeo Okwara, DE, Sr.

Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Sheldon Day, DT, Sr.

Irish Around The Bend: Joe Schmidt, LB, Grad

Offensive Lineman of the Year: Nick Martin, C, Grad

Special Teams Player of the Year: Matthias Farley, S, Grad

Newcomer of the Year Offense: DeShone Kizer, QB, So.

Newcomer of the Year Defense: Jerry Tillery, DT, Fr.

Scout Team Player of the Year Offense: Tristen Hoge, C, Fr.

Scout Team Player of the Year Defense: Asmar Bilal, LB, Fr.