With a combination of blazing speed and well-honed technique, Will Fuller has Notre Dame looking at a College Football Playoff bid entering its Week 5 matchup with Clemson.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There it is, just like Will Fuller said it would be: evidence of that one time he wasn’t fast. It’s merely a four-digit number on a website that apparently catalogs track and field performances nationally, an inventory item from the 2011-12 indoor season, one entry among 13 others for Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High. The question mark next to his name—evidently no one endeavored to confirm what grade he was in—is a little disconcerting. But the chronology and the participant and the school fit. There is William Fuller, and the 200-meter dash time recorded two days before Christmas.
At the time, Fuller was fresh off his junior season of football and emerging as a standout receiver. He joined the track team before leaving it in short order when his hips began to hurt after a couple meets. He’d always been pretty fast. He was excellent at tag in elementary school, he recalls. But in those typical high school arguments about who was faster than whom, the kid who would become one of the most lethal wideouts in college football never came up. He is chagrined to concede this, but he understands why. After all, William Fuller’s 200-meter dash performance, logged for eternity, was 23.83 seconds.
This seems O.K., even brisk by normal human measure. But it’s two seconds slower than the time fellow Notre Dame receiver Chris Brown posted four months later in South Carolina. The two friends have compared these numbers. That does not mean they understand them.
“My times were horrible,” Fuller says, lamenting the memory in a football complex office earlier this week. “It’s crazy. I don’t know what happened.”
We know now that Will Fuller is really fast, and we also know why he is maybe the best receiver in the country: Because he never thought he was fast, which prompted him to rely on painstaking technique and route-running, which now equips the Fighting Irish’s junior star with topflight instincts to complement world-class speed that emerged once he arrived on campus. The environment and task will be loud and difficult for sixth-ranked Notre Dame at No. 12 Clemson on Saturday. It will help to wield the sort of threat that can mute a crowd and reduce even the most airtight plan to cinders.
No college player has more touchdown receptions since the start of last season than Fuller, who has now hauled in 21. Five of his six scoring catches in 2015 have covered 26 yards or more, including a season-saving, 39-yard touchdown grab with 12 seconds left against Virginia on Sept. 12. “He can fly,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says. “And then he has those excellent ball skills to finish. He’s made a lot of competitive plays, where there’s people there, and he’s finishing. He’s as good as you’re going to see.”
In the summer of 2013, during one of his first trips to Notre Dame’s football building as a member of the team, Fuller paused by a Biletnikoff Award display in the lobby with a trophy on a pedestal honoring past winners. One of us has to win it, Fuller told fellow incoming freshmen Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Robinson. It became a running joke within the program that, well into a 76-catch, 1,094-yard sophomore year, Fuller hadn’t cracked even the watch list for the award.
Still, this didn’t irk the generally imperturbable Fuller. No, if there is a recognition issue on his mind, it’s the perception that his wheels alone make him go. “You can be the fastest guy in the world, but if you don’t know how to beat a defender, he can slow you down,” Fuller says. “There are a lot of guys out there who don’t know how to turn a defender around, to use him to give yourself an advantage. There are a lot of things I do other than just running fast.”
Fuller’s straight-line speed is dangerous. The repertoire of receiver tricks he’s compiled over the years compounds the peril.
There are the simple ones, such as “stacking” the defensive back: If he can get a clean release off press coverage, Fuller moves his body so that the defender is completely behind him instead of alongside him. This gives the quarterback multiple options for delivering a pass and limits the cornerback’s chances to get to any of them.
That, again, is basic curriculum. “Something you learn in high school,” Fuller says. He has moved now to advanced stuff, like inverting the dynamic between cornerback and receiver. On a go-route, Fuller knows the defensive back, almost always, will aim to get his hands on a receiver to stifle forward motion. But Fuller holds his line and more or less invites the contact, so he can smack down on those hands as he peels off the cornerback’s hip. What appears like separation due to incredible acceleration can be, essentially, an optical illusion. “When he puts his hand out, you grab his hand and throw it by you,” Fuller says. “He’s slowing down. You’re continuing to go faster.”
This sort of craft is probably taught on nearly every campus nationwide. But it’s a deeply underestimated reason for Fuller’s production.
“He really understands technique at the position,” Swinney says. “He has great influence in his routes. He's very good at his break points and being able to use his body and footwork to separate from people.”
It is useful to know what’s coming, too, and here Fuller is part-detective, part-soothsayer on the periphery of the offense. In the season opener against Texas, Fuller hauled in a pair of touchdown catches to fuel a 38–3 Notre Dame rout. The second, a propulsive 66-yarder in the third quarter, was at least in part preordained.
Pre-snap, Fuller noted the cornerback peeking inside instead of staring at him; it was a sure tell for a Cover-2 call. And it was just about all he needed, though additional Longhorns mistakes assured total annihilation. “The coverage was blown anyway, but I got a good release on the cornerback to push it vertical enough to get past the safety, who noticed late,” Fuller says. “The safety didn’t have enough time to recover.”
On his touchdown catch against UMass last weekend, Fuller actually made two adjustments to find himself in space. First, cued by a nickel defender blitzing on the play, he changed his route to a slant. When quarterback DeShone Kizer was subsequently flushed from the pocket, Fuller scrambled to the specific spot he was supposed to occupy in such a situation, and Kizer hit him for a 26-yard score.
“He has a great feel for where he is on the field,” Brown says.
And, yes, Fuller does get there sooner than most.
The elite speed emerged in that first summer on campus. Fuller remembers not being able to jump out of bed, his legs feeling like they were filled with sand and soldered to his torso. The grueling lower-body workouts devised by Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, however, apparently woke whatever pistons hadn’t been firing previously. Fuller was conscious that a regimented routine of training was helping, but he didn’t recognize that he had a new capacity to red-line it until receivers coach Mike Denbrock approached him during a practice early in preseason camp.
They’re scared of your speed, Denbrock told Fuller. Just keep running fast.
“He does it in practice, but what he does in the game is really something to see,” Brown says. “He’s that type of fast where he’s running, he’s full speed, he’s running pretty fast…but when he looks back for the ball, there’s something about it that he can reach for another gear. He flies in the games. I don’t know what it is.”
The sum total of Will Fuller—fast and reliable—underscores how indispensable he is to a team wracked by injury but still pursuing a College Football Playoff berth. Kizer, thrust into the starting role after Malik Zaire’s ankle fracture, will make mistakes, but Fuller’s combustibility can make a miscue look genius. “You can just put the ball out there and hope that something great is going to happen,” Kizer says. “And more times than not, it will.”
“There isn’t any higher burden on me because we have a younger quarterback,” Fuller insists. “All he has to do is do his job, and we’ll be fine. No one has to do anything spectacular.”
And yet spectacular happened at Virginia, when there was one person on the planet that the Cavaliers couldn’t let behind the defense, and that one person got behind the defense. Thousands of expectant eyes were watching that moment, wondering what would become of the Irish after Zaire left with his injury earlier in the game. And then Fuller demonstrated his problem-solving ability.
All Fuller can remember was freezing after the catch, bolted in place amid a surreal scene, his eyes locked on a single Virginia fan while people said many rude things and made many rude gestures.
“If I saw a picture I would know which one it was,” Fuller says of that fan, smiling. “But it was one of them that was flicking me off.”
Notre Dame’s star receiver has everyone’s attention now, and this precipitates the one type of coverage that makes him uncomfortable. He is polite and accommodating during interviews but basically hates doing them. Seeing himself on the Showtime series documenting the Irish’s season is a particular anguish because he can’t believe that’s how he sounds when he talks.
Fuller is most at ease in that receivers room, in part because he’s among friends, and in part because one friend has a Hall of Fame father (David Robinson) and another has a potential Hall of Fame father (Torii Hunter Sr.). Fuller, as he puts it, is just doing good in college.
Relative anonymity suits him. When Fuller attended a jam-packed, early September event at Notre Dame featuring Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, he didn’t skip a line that stretched across the street because he’s Will Fuller. He just knew a guy.
“I was with Corey Robinson,” Fuller says. “You can walk behind him and get in anywhere on this campus.”
It figured. Will Fuller knows it’s useful to be quicker than anyone can handle. He also knows it helps to run the perfect route.
Each week, The Walkthrough will talk to two assistant coaches about a key upcoming matchup. In Week 5, we’re examining a who-can-slow-down-whom matchup when Houston and its No. 7 offense (590.7 yards per game) travel to face Tulsa and its No. 4 offense (607 yards per game) Saturday.
Bill Young, Tulsa defensive coordinator: “(Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr.) without question is the key. The thing that he brings to the table is unbelievable athleticism. He is a much, much faster athlete than (Oklahoma’s) Baker Mayfield. That’s a concern. Can we keep him in the pocket once we cover the receivers? They’re a spread offense, but out of that spread, they’ll have a tight end occasionally and they’ll get into unbalanced sets, into what we would call ‘Tight End Quads.’ That’s three receivers outside the tight end, and then still have a running back and quarterback in the backfield. With them, it’s like having two running backs back there. They outnumber you at the line of scrimmage. (Demarcus Ayers) is their go-to guy, their most athletic wideout. They’ll go empty with him in the boundary and try to get a mismatch. Any time we’re in any kind of a pressure situation, we need to know who’s on No. 10. We want to play great red-zone goal-line defense. If they get down there, we have to hold them to a field goal at best. We have to get off the field on third down, which means you have to play really good on first and second down. And you have to force some turnovers. You have to break serve, where you get your offense back in there.”
Todd Orlando, Houston defensive coordinator: “The conflict is how many guys you need in the box and how many guys you need to help out when (Tulsa receivers Keyarris Garrett and Keevan Lucas) go out for passes. That’s what made Baylor’s offense such a pain, and that’s why this one is doing so well. Garrett is extremely strong and does a great job using his body to go up for footballs. He’s playing with a ton of confidence right now and he should. He’s a legitimate top-four-round (draft pick) right now. Lucas will run up the slot and break guys down, and he’s great at going after footballs. They’re challenging because you have to play them in space. The quarterback (Dane Evans) has been extremely accurate, too, which is the reason why they’re able to do what they do. He’s doing a great job of managing every part of it, but he’s also making people pay on the outside. Their success has come from explosive, home-run passes. We can’t have those. We also can’t let them run the ball down our face, especially with how fast they run their offense. Our kids will have no chance if they’re running the ball and just gashing us left and right. And then getting turnovers. That’s helped us the last couple weeks in terms of cutting down possessions.”
• Miami at Cincinnati: Gunner Kiel and his neck injury again give way to freshman Hayden Moore, who threw for a Bearcats-record 557 yards against Memphis last week. A quality effort from the unbeaten-but-unconvincing Hurricanes would infuse meaning into a showdown at Florida State nine days later.
• Arizona at Stanford: The Cardinal have averaged 41.5 points in their last two games. A win would be huge for the Wildcats, reeling from the loss of Scooby Wright for several weeks (sprained foot) and the debacle against UCLA. Rich Rodriguez’s crew enters a get-well stretch after this of Oregon State, Colorado and Washington State.
• Arizona State at UCLA: The Sun Devils have some issues, starting with an offense that has potential but ranks just 93rd nationally in scoring (25 ppg). It’s imperative for the Bruins to hold serve at home with a road trip to Stanford after this.
• Purdue at Michigan State: The Darrell Hazell Era is very close to a death spiral. But keeping things interesting against the Spartans, who are dealing with mounting injury worries, could help a little.
• Minnesota at Northwestern: Barely surviving against Ohio, at home, is cause for celebration in Minneapolis these days? We’ll see if Jerry Kill’s crew has made real progress when it faces the nation’s No. 3 scoring defense.
• Iowa at Wisconsin: The most efficient passer in the Big Ten is….C.J. Beathard, 23rd nationally with a 157.8 efficiency rating. This is a Big Ten West pivot game, for sure, given that the Badgers haven’t played anyone since falling to Alabama and lost running back Corey Clement to sports hernia surgery.
• West Virginia at Oklahoma: It’s time to discern what’s real and what’s illusion with the Mountaineers and QB Skyler Howard, who’s fourth nationally in passing efficiency (193.6).
• Texas at TCU: The Horned Frogs’ defensive vulnerability is real, but which offense is likelier to bend here? You’d expect that Trevone Boykin and Co., at home, can score at will against a defense allowing 483 yards per game.
• Florida State at Wake Forest: “He needs to do a much better job.” That’s Jimbo Fisher on Everett Golson, not mincing words to reporters during the bye week. Will that pressure fuel the Seminoles quarterback or turn Golson into an overcompensating turnover machine?
• Alabama at Georgia: Perception-wise, the pressure is on the Bulldogs to seize upon this visit. Reality-wise, they can lose, still be favored in just about every game after it, win the SEC East, play in the conference title game and make a playoff case.
• Texas Tech at Baylor: Viewing note: Watch this, and expect to look like Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd after the G-Force training in Spies Like Us.
• Ohio State at Indiana: The Hoosiers haven’t beaten anyone of note en route to 4–0. This smells like a game of extremes, in which the Buckeyes either put it all together and stamp out the hopes of an aspiring program, or the balance of a title defense comes down to the final seconds.
• Kansas State at Oklahoma State: Here’s where we find out plenty about the Wildcats, a three-game stretch featuring the Cowboys, TCU and Oklahoma.
• Ole Miss at Florida: It’s worth noting that the Gators have cracked the top 25 but are middle-of-the-pack in scoring defense (33.5 points per game) and third-down defense (36.4% conversion rate against). And it’s unlikely Hugh Freeze open doors with bad decisions.
• Mississippi State at Texas A&M: The Bulldogs are allowing 14.8 points per game, tied for 16th nationally, and have Troy, Louisiana Tech and Kentucky at home after this. Win, and Dak Prescott and Co. might be on the verge of serious momentum.
• Notre Dame at Clemson: The loser of this game has zero margin for error in the race for a playoff spot. It’s arguable a weak ACC has the Tigers in that position already.
• Michigan at Maryland: The Terrapins are bad, but the back-patting in Ann Arbor will be an epidemic this week. It’s on Jim Harbaugh to ensure his team doesn’t believe it has it all figured out.
The hair-raising end
We’ve arrived at Week 5. But for a few awful guarantee games sprinkled throughout October and November, we are now in conference play’s thrall. The rivalries. The noise. The rage. The beer, which is the key ingredient to more noise and rage.
It’s October, and damn straight you’re going metal mad.