KeiVarae Russell wants you to know that Will Fuller doesn’t smoke him in practice.
Yes, Notre Dame’s star receiver has made a habit of running by defensive backs this season for four touchdowns in two games, including last weekend’s game-winner at Virginia, the latest winning touchdown in school history. But Russell doesn’t allow that flow in practice. And he wants you to know that.
“Don’t get me wrong, the dude’s good,” Russell said. “But he don’t just be doing this to me. He’s embarrassing these corners. Come on bro. No.
“I know how to play against him. Some guys, you see him that first game and you ain’t never played against him, he’s faster that probably all your receivers that you practiced against that entire week. He can run by you, do anything he wants, literally.”
Through two games Fuller has 12 catches for 266 yards and four touchdowns, accounting for more than half the production of Notre Dame’s receivers. Chris Brown is next at six catches for 79 yards with that late score against Texas. Corey Robinson has just three grabs all year.
The structure of Notre Dame’s passing game is even more slanted toward Fuller, whose 20 targets are more than the combined totals of Brown (11), Amir Carlisle (5) and Robinson (3). A position lauded for depth in the preseason might still have it, but there’s no doubt about Notre Dame’s top weapon.
Brian Kelly has amplified its caliber too, dispatching Fuller to the wide side, giving him more green grass to eat. When Kelly arrived here he put Michael Floyd to the boundary side (the shorter distance between the snap of the ball and the sideline). But teams could comfortably double Floyd there. When Kelly moved Floyd to the field as a senior, his production took off.
That’s where Fuller played last year (76 catches, 1,094 yards 15 touchdowns) and it’s where he’ll stay. He experimented with the boundary side during the spring of his sophomore year.
“I’m real comfortable with it,” Fuller said. “I think I have a better grasp on a lot of routes. It just comes with a feel for the defense.”
Fuller wide creates a challenge for cornerbacks and quarterbacks because of the area to target down the field. Quarterbacks have to make longer throws to that side of the field, meaning arm strength matters. Cornerbacks have to worry about Fuller working shorter routes that move the chains, but they also have to stress about those bombs down the sideline.
Fuller has four catches of at least 30 yards this season. No other Irish receiver has one.
“You really only have a couple of options,” Kelly said. “You can roll the coverage over the top of him, which forces you to strong rotate to the field, which puts you at a potential disadvantage in the running game, where you can be short, or you can play cover two and double zone him. And in spread, you can be really thin down the middle of the field.”
Schematics aside, the biggest asset in Fuller’s game is speed.
It’s common for cornerbacks to be even with Fuller when the ball is thrown on deep routes. When the ball actually arrives, he could be two or three yards beyond them.
“He gets up on you so fast, it’s crazy,” said Elijah Shumate. “He gets from 1-to-10 in a heartbeat. You don’t see that. It’s just crazy. He’s a nightmare to everybody.
“You don’t realize it until he’s up on you, then when you try to turn and get out your break, he’s just taking off. You have no luck after that. He’s gone. If he has a step on you, you won’t catch him. I don’t care who you are.”