Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller never ceases to dazzle; Clemson cornerback Mackenzie Alexander seldom seems to be tested.
Two of the most dynamic players in the country at their respective positions will clash in Memorial Stadium Saturday night when No. 6 Notre Dame visits No. 12 Clemson.
“He’s an outstanding corner,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Alexander, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound red-shirt sophomore. “He reminds me a lot of Florida State’s and LSU’s corners. Very athletic. (Former Florida State CB) Ronald Darby is vying for rookie of the year honors in the NFL right now. We thought he was an outstanding corner.”
“They’ve got probably the best receiver in America,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables of Fuller. “I haven’t really watched a bunch of people, but he might be the best there is. He gets my vote for the guys I’ve watched on tape -- by a landslide. If that battle is lost, we’re probably not going to win the game.”
The mutual admiration society is warranted. Fuller has been unstoppable since bursting onto the scene full-time in 2014. He caught four passes for 85 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown in the first quarter of Notre Dame’s ’14 season-opener against Rice, and his productivity has yet to abate.
In Notre Dame’s last 17 games, Fuller – a 6-foot-0, 184-pound junior -- has caught 98 passes for 1,548 yards (15.8-yard average) with at least one touchdown in 15 of those games. He’s caught at least five passes in 13 of 17 games and cracked the 100-yard receiving mark seven times.
Alexander is a rare individual in that most football players are measured by the number of plays they make. Clemson keeps stats for the inordinate number of plays that the opposition avoids Alexander.
As a red-shirt sophomore last fall – he suffered a pre-season injury that kept him out of action in 2013 – opponents threw just 65 passes to the receiver Alexander was covering. He allowed just 21 completions (32.3 percent), 288 yards (4.4 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns.
On the 766 plays in which Alexander participated in last season, opponents threw in his direction once every 13 plays, or just 4.4 times per game. Opponents completed a pass to Alexander’s man once every 38 plays, or less than twice per game.
High opinions on Alexander are coming everywhere, none higher than from Alexander himself.
“Every guy that talks about Mackensie knows I’m the best corner in college,” said Alexander in August. “It’s not even close…Look at my body of work, the things I’ve done. It’s not even close. Look at everybody else’s numbers. I don’t care who they are and what league they play in. If you can play, you can play.”
Fuller takes a much more low-key approach, which has been his nature since his arrival from Philadelphia in the summer of 2013. The speedy wideout made a notable yet limited mark in his rookie season when he had a 37-yard reception in the fourth game against Michigan State, and then added a 47-yard score four games later at Air Force. He finished with just six receptions as a freshman, but averaged 26.7 yards per grab.
Fuller became an unstoppable force last season with 76 receptions for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns, the latter of which tied a Notre Dame single-season mark.
Yet when asked to talk about his matchup with Alexander, Fuller offers a broader scope, although Clemson players and followers may have a different opinion this week.
Fuller said he wasn’t trying to stir anything up with Clemson when he tweeted out an emoji-filled message with the hashtag #savage shortly after Notre Dame’s victory over UMass.
“I didn’t mean any offense,” said the soft-spoken Fuller. “I was just basically saying I was excited about playing Clemson. I tweeted that right after the UMass game because I was excited to get started for Clemson.”
That prompted 6-foot-5, 220-pound Clemson safety Jayron Kearse to suggest that Notre Dame was talking some smack this week without the full knowledge of what “Death Valley” offers to unsuspecting visitors. The Irish players aren’t backing down, but they’re also not taking the bait.
“(Alexander) is a very good athlete,” conceded Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer, who will be making his third career start and first away from Notre Dame Stadium. “He’s aggressive, he’s strong, and he’s fast. Probably going to be one of the better corners that we play against this season.
“At the same time, Will Fuller is fast, strong and a great athlete. Breezy (senior wideout Chris Brown) is fast, strong, and a great athlete, too. I mean, this is college football. Everyone is elite once you get here. We’re a top 10 team; they’re a top 15 team. We’re going to have great athletes on both sides of the ball.”
It will be interesting to see how Venables, Alexander and the rest of the Clemson defense chooses to play pass defense against Kizer, Fuller and the Irish offense. Alexander doesn’t think he needs safety help to defend Fuller. Everybody else has, but Alexander is a rare breed.
If the Tigers choose to involve Kearse (seven career interceptions) in the coverage of Fuller, that will force Kizer to look to Brown, slot receiver Amir Carlisle, backup wideouts Corey Robinson and Torii Hunter, Jr., and several capable tight ends.
“I feel like if they play me one-on-one, I’ll have to make the plays I’m supposed to make,” said Brown, who is second to Fuller’s team-leading 22 receptions for 454 yards and six touchdowns with 16 grabs for 178 yards and two scores. “That’s in any game plan. If anybody gets matched up one-on-one, I feel like we’re supposed to make that play and get open for the quarterback.”
“Breezy can stretch the field as well,” Fuller said. “Corey is huge. He catches everything his way. Torii and Amir do a great job with their routes, so we’ll be fine.”
But when push comes to shove – which will happen quite often because Venables likes to employ Alexander in press coverage – Kizer will be trying to get the football to Fuller because that’s how the Irish excel. Six of Notre Dame’s nine receiving touchdowns have gone to Fuller this year after 15 of 30 ended up in his hands a year ago.
“We’re going to treat (Alexander) as we game plan against any other athlete,” Kizer said. “We’re not going to shy away or go towards him or (predetermine) how many targets (to Alexander’s side). We don’t really keep stats on that. We’re not going to go out there with the mindset of keeping the ball away from that guy.
“I’m going to throw the ball to the first read that’s open. If it’s on his side, it’s going to go that way. If he’s covering down and playing good defense, then we’ll go to the backside and try to find the next open man.”
Fuller is itching for the opportunity to show his wares on the big stage that will be Memorial Stadium Saturday night.
“It’s going to be a great matchup,” Fuller said. “Mackenzie Alexander is a real good cornerback. Their entire secondary is good. They’re real aggressive, especially in their press-man. Watching the film, they’ve run a lot of receivers out of bounds. They’re a real aggressive group.
“Everybody’s going to be watching. You have a chance to prove yourself. I can’t wait to get going against these guys.”