Credit Malik Zaire for training camp’s best player-to-player comparison.
When Notre Dame’s starting quarterback was asked to frame Will Fuller’s reluctant star status within the program, Zaire got creative. He added 100 pounds and a half-foot to his go-to target. And in comparing Fuller to former two-time captain and eventual first-round pick Zack Martin, Zaire paid a supreme compliment to the receiver.
“I just think a lot of it is he’s not a self-proclaiming type of guy,” Zaire said. “He’s not going to say I, I, I in a lot of instances. Because he’s such a team guy and because he’s such a special athlete, you’ve got the best of both worlds. You don’t have that diva, superstar receiver like some people turn out to be.
“That was the same thing with Zack Martin. With Zack Martin people really didn’t have to talk about him until he was gone. That’s how you know you’re a special player.”
Like it or not, Notre Dame will push Fuller into the spotlight this season.
The sports information department put Fuller front-and-center on Notre Dame’s Media Guide, flanked by captains Nick Martin and Sheldon Day. Forget potential Top 10 picks Ronnie Stanley and Jaylon Smith – they made the back cover – the school is all in on Fuller. Even the Biletnikoff Award has noticed, including Fuller on their watch list after ignoring him all last season.
If Fuller likes all the attention, he won’t admit it. The only satisfaction he showed with his hype was re-tweeting a reporter who’d posted a picture of the Media Guide cover. He’s been nonplussed by everything else.
“A really quiet, introverted guy,” said receivers coach Mike Denbrock. “He’s an A-type personality in competitiveness. Down deep where it matters, he is as competitive as anybody out there. He’s OK with not rubbing your nose in it or saying it out loud as long as he’s crossing the goal line with the ball. It’s a pretty cool dynamic.”
Fuller posted 76 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, on par with Golden Tate’s breakout sophomore year (58 catches, 1,080 yards, 10 touchdowns). Unlike Tate, Fuller has no interest in broadcasting success. Like Tate, if Fuller improves as a junior it could be his final season in South Bend, not that he’ll entertain that idea.
“I don’t even look at myself as a No. 1,” Fuller said. “Corey, Chris, Torii can get it done. Teamwork will get it done.”
Yes, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown and Torii Hunter Jr., should factor more into the pass game this season. And yes, that might mean a statistical drop for Fuller when combined with a run-first offense under Zaire. And it’s also true Notre Dame’s screen game with Fuller, which he turned into touchdowns against LSU, Florida State, North Carolina and Syracuse, should be better defensed this season.
Despite all that, the Irish don’t expect a backslide from the do-everything receiver. In fact, Denbrock thinks teams being ready for the slip screen to Fuller won’t mean they stop it.
“We will run it out of 100 different looks and try to disguise it a little bit,” Denbrock said. “We’re gonna run it, of course. Screen is part of his deal.”
Denbrock said where Fuller has improved most is speaking up in meeting rooms, even if he remains deflective in interviews. Instead of watching something go wrong, Fuller now corrects it. His voice should mean something considering how little it’s heard.
“He was Will to himself,” Denbrock said. “Now at least he engages a lot more at the wide receivers. He’s not gonna get in front of them like Malik does, but he’s not afraid to help out the young guys and speak up.
“I think that development alone has helped him. OK, I said something and nobody told me, ‘Hey shut up, that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.’ Now I can do it again and expand it.”
Notre Dame will have bigger voices within its offense in Zaire, Stanley and Nick Martin. It has better off-the-field stories at receiver in Robinson, Hunter and even Equanimeous St. Brown. But it won’t have a better player than Fuller. Perhaps nobody on the roster is faster. Definitely nobody on the roster improved more last season.
How Fuller handles the added attention – from media and cornerbacks – may determine what comes next.
“I think that’s gonna be a big adjustment,” Fuller said. “Teams are going to be looking for things … it’s not a surprise anymore.”