Will Fuller sizes up apparent flaws, Jaylon Smith and the future

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — Will Fuller had already taken the mental leap into the NFL Draft when Notre Dame football teammate Jaylon Smith’s left knee abhorrently buckled Jan. 1, and so temporarily did his heretofore unimpeded NFL future.

It was just a matter of Fuller keeping his decision to become an early entry to himself until a public reversal of an earlier declaration to return to Notre Dame found the appropriately respectful distance from what turned out to be his final collegiate game, a 44-28 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.

“I’m sure that would scare a lot of people,” Fuller said of Smith’s multiple ligament tears, speaking Thursday during a brief-but-packed media session at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.

And then the Irish wide receiver went on to admit that it probably would have stirred his thought process had he not already thoroughly vetted it, including reaching out to 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown and fellow former ND wide receiver standouts TJ Jones and Michael Floyd.

That he is one of an abnormally large group of 10 players from Notre Dame at the invite-only combine this week, and not back in South Bend trying to figure out how to diplomatically frame Irish quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire as equally worth 2016 starters, has put a glaring focus on what Fuller is not rather than his trump card — speed.

When he does get his chance to unfurl that skill on Saturday, Fuller hopes/figures he’ll run the 40-yard dash in the 4.35-second neighborhood, more than a tenth of a second faster than did Floyd (4.47 in 2012), the only ND wide receiver since Brown in 1988 to be selected in the draft’s first round.

His others measurables, at least those taken while he was stationary, put him in position of having something to prove if he’s going to move out of a second-round projection and into the bottom of round one when the proliferation of mock drafts gives way to the real one, April 28-30 in Chicago.

The Philadelphia native on Thursday morning — after having breakfast with Alabama reigning Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry — came in right at 6-foot tall. And at 186 pounds was four pounds away from tying Houston’s Demarcus Ayers as the lightest wide receiver among the 43 invited to the underwear Olympics portion of the combine.

With size 8 ¼ hands, Fuller tied Michigan State’s Aaron Burbridge and TCU’s Kolby Listenbee for the smallest hands in the group.

So naturally, particularly since Fuller did have a reputation for drops during two otherwise mega-productive seasons at ND, he was peppered with questions Thursday about his hands and not relying so much on pinning the ball against his body.

Fuller, way more candid and unrehearsed than your typical combine participant, actually went on to expound on all the flaws he had been working on since the Fiesta Bowl.

“The biggest thing — and I’ve talked to plenty of receiver coaches — they say they notice I start running … I don’t aggressively attack the ball in the air,” he said. “That’s a big thing I’ve been working on, is attacking the ball and not letting it eat me up.”

Being a quasi-underdog in this mass job interview certainly isn’t eating Fuller up. He’s used to it. Though a strong senior season at Philly’s Roman Catholic High and some impressive all-star workouts coaxed him to four-star status late in the recruiting process, the number of scholarship offers and the gleam of most of them didn’t align with that assessment.

Besides Penn State, the school he originally verbally committed to, and ND, Fuller’s offers came from Boston College, Bowling Green, Delaware, UMass, Old Dominion, Rutgers, Temple, Toledo, Towson and Villanova.

After a relatively quiet freshman season with limited opportunities in 2013, Fuller was ND’s leading receiver the next two seasons and one of the nation’s leaders both years in TD receptions. He would have been on a trajectory to expunge at least some of Floyd’s career records had he come back for his senior season.

Which he originally and emphatically claimed he would do in mid-November.

About that?

“So the media really got me that day,” he said with a smile. “I had no idea that would be one of the questions asked, so I just felt like, ‘Say the right thing and not the wrong thing.’

“So that day, I felt I said the right thing. Went back to my phone, and it was out in the world. It made my decision a lot more tough, but I feel like I made the right decision.”

By the numbers

The workout portion of the combine kicked off late Thursday afternoon, with Irish center Nick Martin posting a big number.

His 28 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press was 11th among the 45 offensive linemen who participated and second among the nine centers.

Concord High product Jason Spriggs, who played at Indiana, did 31 reps. That’s fourth-most among offensive linemen. Notre Dame offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, a projected top 15 pick, did not lift.

Arizona State offensive guard Christian Westerman was the top performer among offensive linemen in the bench press with 35 reps.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Will Fuller (7) makes a touchdown reception next to Stanford’s Terrence Alexander (11) during the first half of Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, in Palo Alto, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN