‘Dream’ homecoming for Will Fuller

Will Fuller doesn’t understand the big deal about Will Fuller. He returns to his hometown as a star anyway, a reality that still needs to grow on the junior deep threat.

Will Fuller stood outside the LaBar Practice Complex and waited.

The 155-pound athlete figured he’d get in to watch Notre Dame’s training camp eventually. The Penn State commitment wasn’t conditioned to think of himself as a big deal back then, the kind of recruit who expects a literal red carpet on visits.

Finally, a media member alerted Notre Dame’s staff that there was a recruit stuck outside the gates. The Irish recruiting department then fetched Fuller to begin that visit, which turned into a Notre Dame commitment a week later. Three years after that fact, Fuller is one of Notre Dame’s biggest stars despite his indifference to the spotlight.

It’s not that Fuller hates the attention that’s built since his record-setting sophomore season. Even with an All-American caliber encore, he just doesn’t think he’s worth it, even within the obvious homecoming narrative when No. 9 Notre Dame travels to his hometown Philadelphia to face No. 21 Temple with College GameDay there too.

“That's why I say it's like a dream come true,” Fuller said. “I would never have thought about this happening.”

For good reason.

Beyond offers from Notre Dame and Penn State, Fuller’s recruiting profile was barely regional. He reported just two other Power 5 offers: Boston College and Rutgers. He camped at Temple and Lafayette for more exposure. He got interest from Virginia but no offer.

Last month he beat the Cavaliers on a 39-yard bomb from DeShone Kizer and turned Sad Virginia Fan into an internet meme. Fuller has artwork of that fan draped over his shoulder on his Twitter page. 

That’s as close as Fuller gets to trash talk. He doesn’t see the point, whether that’s engaging KeiVarae Russell in practice or Clemson players over Twitter about his #savage tweet that somehow riled up that program. Fuller irritated another program this week when he claimed college football wasn’t a big deal in Philly but is now “since Notre Dame is coming to town.”

Fuller’s reaction rests between nonplussed and confused.

“Not too many people knew too much about him because he’s so quiet, so humble,” said offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, Fuller’s travel companion on trips home. “He just goes out and let’s his play do the talking.

“He’s quiet and under the radar, and then he’ll strike like a lightning bolt.”

Despite Notre Dame turning over the quarterback position twice, Fuller remains on track to match his historic sophomore season. His 15 receiving touchdowns matched the single-season school mark. If he goes for another 15 he’ll sit second all-time at Notre Dame behind only Michael Floyd.

Brian Kelly can say he saw this coming only because he predicted Fuller’s rise before it came.

As an undersized freshman wearing No. 15 – T.J. Jones still had claim to No. 7 back then – Fuller made his first big catch in a win over Michigan State. The Irish were the only program to beat the Spartans that year, although Fuller receded into the background afterward.

Before his sophomore season, when Fuller was supposed to back up DaVaris Daniels, Kelly pulled him aside. The head coach told Fuller he would be the program’s go-to receiver. He didn’t think he’d earned that kind of compliment.

“It surprised me a little bit when he came up to me and said it,” Fuller said. “I just took that personal. He has faith in me and believed in me, and I just started working my butt off ever since he said that to me.”

He’s scored 23 touchdowns since.

The rest of Notre Dame’s receivers have 14.

That means Fuller can’t play the underdog card with any sincerity now, which dries out his best fuel. A transfer into Roman Catholic High School, Fuller got juice from being overlooked, even if he was part of the reason why colleges didn’t come harder after him. He didn’t work the summer camp circuit for attention. He didn’t connect in the classroom either, where Fuller said his grades got the attention of college coaches in a bad way.

“My grades weren’t up to par. I really had to lock down my junior and senior year of school so I could be eligible,” Fuller said. “Recruiters always said you’ve got to get your academics up if you want to play D-I ball. That really stuck with me. I got it pretty quick.”

Even after flipping to Notre Dame – a move that usually ensures a spike in interest – Fuller was the fourth receiver in a four-man class. James Onwualu and Torii Hunter Jr. had landed invites to The Opening that summer. Hunter and Corey Robinson headed to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Fuller got into the lower level Semper Fi Game.

Now he pops up in the first round of speculative mock drafts.

Whether Fuller stays or goes after this year – he said he hasn’t thought about that decision – the fact there’s even an NFL option is difficult for the receiver to reconcile. But that’s his new reality. The kid stuck outside Notre Dame’s practice facility three years ago will be breaking down the doors of an NFL stadium soon.

Saturday night in his hometown might be a start.

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