Product of tradition: Top CB Fuller set to leave mark at Good Counsel
OLNEY, Md. -- It was an unseasonably warm evening, nearly 75 degrees in mid-March, and Kendall Fuller stood at the 40-yard line. He had just completed a series of drills at Our Lady of Good Counsel High's quarterback school, a player-organized conditioning session that's the high school equivalent of spring practice, and waited patiently as three teammates joined him near midfield. Daylight had given way to dusk, and the stadium lights glowed luminously in the dark purple sky. The players crouched in sprinter's position, ready to race.
At the drop of a hat they were off. Within seconds, Fuller demonstrated what makes him such a coveted prospect: His 6-foot, 189-pound frame exploded off the line as he bolted into the lead and used one bounding stride after another to cruise to an easy victory. It seemed effortless. It was display of athleticism worthy of his incessant hype.
"He's big and he's fast and he's strong," said Good Counsel coach Bob Milloy, whose team opens the season Friday at nationally ranked Bishop Gorman (Nev.) High on ESPN2. "He's a natural athlete."
Fuller, 17, is the nation's No. 6 overall recruit according to Rivals.com. He's one of the most promising cornerbacks in the class of 2013, a Virginia Tech commit with both the skill and pedigree of a future college star. His 526 receiving yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions helped Good Counsel to a 12-0 record and a conference title in 2011, and his three older brothers -- Vincent, Corey and Kyle -- all played football for the Hokies. He passes the eye test. Kendall has a chance to be the best of the bunch and one of the most dominant players in the nation.
But for all of his accolades, he's still getting used to the attention. And to fully appreciate his success, it's necessary to first understand how he got here.
During the fall of 2009, Fuller was a baby-faced freshman. He was athletic but unmistakably raw, and tried out for the team as a wide receiver and cornerback. To his surprise, he was the only ninth-grader selected for varsity.
"We called him up because we saw his intangibles as a young boy," said Falcons assistant coach Kevin McFadden. "We knew that once he got acclimated to the speed of the game at that level, the transition would be a lot easier."
It was a forward-thinking move, one designed to teach Fuller the basics of Good Counsel's system. But it also set up a tantalizing matchup. In Week 2, Good Counsel would play Mt. St. Joseph's, the high school where his brother Kyle was a two-way star. It would be the first and only time they'd ever play each other head-to-head.
After a lopsided first half -- Good Counsel led 28-0 and went on to win 42-0 -- Kendall saw his first playing time. He lined up opposite Kyle and prepared to throw a block. The ball was snapped. Kyle promptly torpedoed his younger brother to the turf.
"I just looked down at him and started laughing," said Kyle. "The game was over, but he and I were going at it."
It was representative of Kendall's upbringing. He competed with Vincent, Corey and Kyle at everything, refusing to accept failure. He worked to overcome his physical shortcomings, and more desperately, to assert his athletic superiority. Age didn't matter. By the time he was in grade school, he wanted to be the best.
"Although Kendall was smaller, that didn't stop him from competing," said Kyle. "He would want to win and he'd get mad when he didn't."
So it went: Kendall took part in an endless series of challenges. Before football practice, he'd run Oklahomas, a drill in which he put on pads, dropped to a three-point stance and rammed into his brothers at full speed -- last man standing wins. During the offseason, he'd accompany them to the nearby Woodlawn High track, staging 400- and 800-meter sprints to determine who was fastest. If something could be turned into a contest, it was.
Kendall typically lost, but that wasn't the significance. In the process, he developed a striking underdog mentality.
"Being the youngest, that definitely sticks with him," said Kyle. "I think it definitely has had a big impact on the success he's having now."
As his brothers flourished -- Vincent is a seven-year NFL veteran with the Titans and Lions; Kyle was a second-team All-ACC cornerback in 2011 -- it also provided him with uncommon perspective. By observing their grueling training regimens, from drill work to film sessions to weightlifting, he internalized the importance of making the most of each opportunity. "I think the thing that my brothers taught me the most is just to be patient," he said.
That's proven immensely valuable. At Good Counsel, as with his family, Kendall has had to wait for his time in the limelight.
For as gifted as Fuller is, he was widely regarded as the third most talented player on last year's Falcon roster. Senior athlete Stefon Diggs and running back Wes Brown, both now freshmen at Maryland, were the headliners, and when Good Counsel captured its first undefeated season and its third consecutive Western Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) championship, they were the ones handed the majority of the credit.
Fuller was seen as a key cog -- he made a 57-yard touchdown reception to the set the tone in a 24-17 win over Manatee (Fla.) High, reeled in two second-half scores to break away from Red Lion Christian (Del.) Academy and corralled a crucial fourth-quarter interception to clinch victory against rival DeMatha (Md.) High -- but that was the extent of it. He was just another very good player on a program with a history of them: Jelani Jenkins (Florida), Louis Young (Georgia Tech) and Blake Countess (Michigan) are among the school's well-known alumni.
Similar to his experience with his brothers, though, Fuller blossomed under their tutelage. He credits Countess for helping with his positioning, Diggs for improving his man-to-man coverage. During one-on-one sessions against Diggs, he gradually developed the ability to stick with one of the nation's premier wideouts -- an up-and-coming prospect learning from an established one.
"I remember during my freshman and sophomore year, he was just destroying me," said Fuller. "But I figured if I kept on going against him, even if I was doing bad, I was gonna get better."
That attitude paid off. This season, Fuller is the teacher, and he's out to instill his relentlessly hardworking mentality among each of his 2012 teammates.
"This is basically Kendall's team this year," said Milloy. "He can be vocal if he wants to be, but by his example and by his hard work, it's his team."
In early March, Fuller summoned the 50-odd players into a classroom to discuss the upcoming season. He and several other seniors, including Clemson-bound linebacker/running back Dorian O'Daniel and Virginia-bound quarterback Brendan Marshall, stood in front, while the remainder of the team filled in behind. Fuller made it pristinely clear: Diggs is gone. Brown is gone. And facing what could be the Falcons' most daunting schedule to date, with games against Bishop Gorman and renowned programs St. Joseph Regional (N.J.) High and H.D. Woodson (D.C.) High, he still expects to emerge triumphant.
"He wanted to start early because he's serious about it," said sophomore defensive back Roger Richardson. "The biggest thing is to go undefeated and win a WCAC championship."
Reaching those goals won't be easy. But given Fuller's combination of skill, savvy and leadership, his coaches and teammates aren't shy about buying in.
"He's very smart," said Milloy. "He understand what he's gotta do. Now that Kendall will be the guy, it's certainly gonna be harder for him. But I'm sure he'll be up for the challenge. I'm sure he will."
Added junior wide receiver Andre Levrone: "In my eyes, he's the best corner, hands down, in the country."
Standing in the end zone on that unseasonably warm March evening, Fuller had the look of a star in the making. His giddy demeanor and ear-to-ear smile were contagious, and his Division I potential shone through with every step. Five months remained until the season's first game, but he was ready: ready to begin Good Counsel's WCAC title defense; ready to elevate his career to even loftier heights.
Fans will zero in on his college potential -- he committed to Virginia Tech over Clemson and Michigan on July 29 -- but a bigger storyline is in play. He's transformed from an oft-overshadowed younger brother to the most promising prospect in the entire Fuller family.
"He just sees where we're at now and he wants to be better," said Corey. "I think he's more mature than any of us at that age."
The Fullers are Baltimore's version of the Mannings, athletically gifted and supremely talented, armed with a tireless work ethic to match their uncommon talent. Good Counsel is the region's new-era powerhouse, equipped with a winning legacy and resources that would put many small colleges to shame (Skylar Saar, the strength and conditioning coach, previously worked at James Madison, Maryland, Minnesota and UTEP). Kendall, then, is a product of tradition. And in many ways he is.
But for the first time in his life, he's also the main attraction, the player who scouts will watch for and opposing coaches will prepare against. His playmaking ability will take center stage in 2012 -- a long-awaited opportunity that he's fully embracing.
"The pressure is on, but that's what [I] want," said Fuller. "When you live in the shadows all the time, you want the pressure 'cause you want to show people that you're gonna do whatever it takes."
He has a long way to go, but his journey is just beginning. At the drop of a hat he'll be off.