Notre Dame WR Will Fuller reverses field, heads to NFL

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In his initial, unprovoked November declaration to stay and chase a national title and Michael Floyd’s records, junior Will Fuller’s enthusiasm for extending his Notre Dame future started with the prospect of playing alongside, instead of in front of, Equanimeous St. Brown.

The 6-foot-4, 205-pound freshman receiver garnered modest numbers (one reception for eight yards and a blocked punt) in a season abridged by four games because of a season-ending shoulder injury, but his practice habits and performances were far from modest.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly often offered that St. Brown would be a starter on most FBS teams, and with now losing Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 5 in receptions from his 10-3 team, St. Brown and others will get a chance to move up the depth chart.

As Fuller watches from a distance.

Perhaps it wasn’t so much a change of heart as logic overriding it that prompted Fuller to change his vision for 2016.

Fuller on Sunday reversed his mid-November announcement that he would return to school for his senior season and instead declared for the 2016 NFL Draft, 15 days ahead of the deadline to do so.

The ND 2015 team MVP and second-team All-American joins teammates offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and running back C.J. Prosise in giving up their final seasons of college eligibility, though Fuller is the only true junior among them.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith and cornerback KeiVarae Russell, both underclassmen in the NFL’s eyes — despite Russell’s senior-year academic status — are the two Irish players contemplating an early entry who have yet to formally announce their intentions.

“First, I would like to start off by thanking my coaches, family, teammates, friends and fans that have supported me throughout my football career,” Fuller said in a statement he released on Twitter and Instagram. “The University of Notre Dame is not just a learning institution. It has afforded me an incomparable life experience, and for this, I will forever be grateful.

“Playing with Team 127 is an experience I will always celebrate, and I have made brothers for life. My heart truly wanted to return to Notre Dame, but it has also been a lifelong dream to play football in the NFL.

“After taking all of this into lengthy consideration, I believe it is in my best interest to forgo my senior season and enter the 2016 draft. I came to Notre Dame to earn a degree from the greatest university in the world, and I will still accomplish that goal.

“Again, thank you for all the support and I hope you continue on this journey with me.”

Whether the next step in his journey lands in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, April 28-30 in Chicago, or sometime later in the seven-round affair will likely be cleared up to some extent when Fuller presumably takes part in the NFL Scouting Combine next month in Indianapolis.

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has the 6-foot, 184-pound Philadelphia product going late in the first round, 29th overall, to the Cincinnati Bengals in his latest mock draft.

ESPN colleague Mel Kiper Jr. rates Fuller as the sixth-best wide receiver in the draft.

Analysts Scott Wright of and Matt Miller of Bleacher Report, aren’t quite as ambitious about Fuller’s ceiling as McShay, noting NFL teams’ concerns with his lack of size and his intermittent pattern of dropping passes, but his elite speed could buoy his draft position.

“There’s always going to be a limit of how high he goes in the draft,” Wright said prior to Fuller making his decision. “He’s not Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green. He’s really not that top 10, top five overall type of pick.

“I really think he’s going to be that top 50, top 75 value, whether he comes out this year or next year. He’s coming off two incredible seasons. If he wanted to come out and take advantage of it, I think he’d probably go as high as he could a year from now.

“At the same time, if he wanted to go back for his degree, I don’t think, barring injury, he would fall much a year from now. It’s kind of a coin flip.”

Kelly seemed to sense the flip in intentions coming all along in Fuller’s initial sentiment to stay.

That was even evident in his November pondering in the best way to get St. Brown back in the weight room and into 100-percent mode for winter workouts. Surgery or no surgery? The parties involved settled on the surgical route over rest/rehab.

Redshirted freshman Miles Boykin also figures into the reconfigured-but-still-deep receiving corps in 2016, consistently impressing the coaching staff with his own practice performances.

Junior Torii Hunter Jr., with two seasons of remaining eligibility available to him because of a redshirt season in 2013, is now ND’s leading returning receiver after finishing fourth in 2015 with 28 catches for 363 yards and two touchdowns.

Junior Corey Robinson, redshirted sophomore Corey Holmes and freshman C.J. Sanders comprise the other returnees.

Verbal commitments Chase Claypool (6-5, 214 from British Columbia, Canada) and Kevin Stepherson (6-1, 180 from Jacksonville, Fla.) are already in the recruiting fold, and top 60 national prospect Javon McKinley of Corona, Calif., (6-2, 196) is said to be leaning toward joining them.

Fuller, with 30 career TD receptions, leaves second only to Floyd in that category. Twenty-nine of those 30 came in the past two seasons, the most by any FBS player in that span.

He finishes fourth in career 100-yard games (11), seventh in career receptions (144) and tied for fourth with Derrick Mayes in career receiving yards (2,512).

Perhaps the stat that best ties into the challenge of replacing Fuller is that eight his 14 TD receptions in 2015 went for 45 yards or more, including his final one in the Fiesta Bowl — an 81-yard connection from DeShone Kizer.

It wasn’t just his relentless production that vexed opposing defensive coordinators, it was the dilemma his elite speed put them in from a game-planning standpoint.

Do you double down with a safety and open up opportunities for the Irish running game, slot receivers and tight ends? Or do you chance single coverage, as Pitt did (Fuller had 7 receptions, 152 yards, 3 TDs in that game), and try to be more balanced defensively.

And as talented as the up-and-comers are in the receiving corps, there isn’t anyone who has proven yet he can stretch both a defense and its coordinator’s patience and scheme.

St. Brown appears to be the man who will get the first opportunity to try.


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

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)