As a quiet, scrawny freshman receiver in 2013, Will Fuller blended in to the landscape, save for that take-the-top-off speed that earmarked his rookie season at Notre Dame when he made just six receptions, but averaged a whopping 26.7 yards per grab.
Other than his understated personality and quiet-by-nature demeanor, there’s was nothing subtle about Fuller’s sophomore season when the 6-foot-0, 180-pounder out of Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia caught a startling 79 passes for 1,094 yards and a Notre Dame record-tying 15 touchdowns.
Chapter three of the Fuller portfolio promises to be another significant step in the evolution of perhaps the nation’s most underrated big-play receiver in the country.
En route to his breakthrough season, he never caught less than three passes in a game, scored touchdowns in each of the first four games of the year and 11 out of 13, and topped the 75-yard mark nine times.
“Will’s numbers will still be high because of his versatility,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Anytime you accumulate that many catches, you have to have versatility at that (X) position.”
The evolution of Fuller and his game is in constant motion. Eight pounds heavier, not nearly as painfully shy as he once was, and more conscientious of every step he now takes on practice field as an upperclassman, Fuller has raised the bar on his own expectations.
“I look at myself as a leader of the team now,” Fuller said. “I’ve got to be a lot more consistent this year, helping the young guys, bettering my game and taking it to the next level.”
There’s little doubt what the next level for Fuller is despite his breakthrough 2014 season. Even with his 79 receptions, that number could have been much closer to 90 or more had it not been for a fairly high number of dropped passes.
“Staying more consistent,” Fuller summarized. “I had a lot of drops last year. That’s really embarrassing as a player, getting drops when you’re wide open. It’s lack of focus, trying to make a move before I catch the ball. “
Nothing can negatively infiltrate the mind of a wide receiver more than missed opportunities in the passing game.
“I try to forget the drops, but if I’m watching film and you see it, it reminds me of it,” Fuller said. “But you’ve got to get the drops out of your head.”
How does a receiver do that?
“Just thinking about the team,” Fuller said. “For example, last year against LSU, I had a big drop, but on the next play, Tarean (Folston) had a big run. Just trying to think of your teammates and trying to get that win instead of thinking about myself.”
Yet another example of the maturation of Fuller, who had his hands full with learning the nuances of the position as a freshman and prior to last season after serving mainly as a speed/deep ball threat but little else.
“He’s a deep-ball threat player, but he can also catch the short, quick slants and the screens,” Kelly said.
Indeed, Fuller can out-run most secondaries on a go-route, but he’s also adept at taking the underneath throws and creating big-play opportunities, which he did frequently in ’14.
Also added to Fuller’s list of responsibilities is to help mentor freshman receivers Miles Boykin, Equanimeous St. Brown and CJ Sanders. Once again, another example of Fuller’s growth from young adult to full-fledged adulthood.
“You just have to love what you do, go at it every day and share your knowledge and experience,” Fuller said. “They have a way better grasp than I did when I came in.”
How much has Fuller changed during his evolution as a wide receiver? Enough to make a definitive, blanket statement about the state of Notre Dame’s quarterback position now that Malik Zaire has taken over for Everett Golson.
“(Zaire) knows he can get the ball wherever it needs to go,” Fuller said. “His confidence is real good for our offense. He’s a lot more vocal than Everett. He talks a lot more. I think he’s a better leader than Ev.”
Fuller also is confident that Zaire can get him and his teammates the football as readily as Golson did while commandeering the offense.
“Malik can do anything any other quarterback can do,” Fuller said. “He has a great arm. He’s real smart. With more reps, he’ll be a lot better controlling the offense. He’s going to do a great job of leading us this year.”
Looks and sounds like Fuller will be at the head of the pack, too.