SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Ohio State is built to stop Will Fuller.
At the line, the Buckeyes can use future NFL cornerback Eli Apple. Then they can stick a similarly skilled safety over the top in Vonn Bell. In terms of talent, that tandem is the best Fuller has seen all season outside Clemson. Yet how Ohio State approaches Fuller schematically reminds the junior of his biggest victim.
“They’re real similar to Pitt in their defensive structure,” Fuller said. “They press-bail a lot. The middle of the field is closed. They don’t really get their hands on you, they press and try to funnel you. They try to run with you.”
Few teams have done that successfully this season, from USC to Virginia to Stanford to Pittsburgh. Fuller torched the Panthers for a season-high 152 yards, three touchdowns and seven catches.
Three times this season Fuller has scored on catches of 60 yards or more.
Ohio State hasn’t allowed a completion of that distance all year.
Still, Fuller has Ohio State’s attention because he reminds the Buckeyes of somebody who demands it. While Bell was asked if Fuller had some Amari Cooper from Alabama in his game – Bell laughed off that comparison – the Buckeyes safety said Fuller reminds him of former Ohio State wide out Devin Smith. Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said the same, but added Fuller has more versatility to his game.
Smith, a second-round pick last spring, averaged 28.2 yards per reception in his final season at Ohio State, a second record. He scored 12 touchdowns on just 33 receptions. Ten of those scores came on passes of at least 20 yards down the field.
“Fuller is probably as fast as anybody we’ve seen in a long time,” Fickell said. “It’s gonna be a big challenge.”
While the talent at Clemson might be similar to what Ohio State sticks on Fuller, the Irish deep threat doesn’t expect the same physical challenge. The Tigers limited him to two catches for 37 yards. And while that game was played in a driving rain storm, DeShone Kizer still managed to throw for a career-high 321 yards in those conditions.
Fuller said he’s received his NFL Draft feedback from the league’s committee that advises underclassmen but declined to reveal it.
“It didn’t surprise me. It’s probably what I expected,” Fuller said. “We’ll see what happens after the season. I feel like I’ll know right away. Right after the season I’ll probably sit down with coach (Brian) Kelly and make my decision.”
Perhaps what happens Friday in the Fiesta Bowl will play a part in that decision considering Apple and Bell are both weighing NFL Draft jumps of their own.
“It’s a great opportunity for me knowing that they’ve got some pro prospects,” Fuller said. “I think he’s gonna test me more than Mackensie (Alexander) because (Apple) presses more. It will be more like a 1-on-1 matchup with Eli.”
In terms of film on how Ohio State will attack Fuller, he said he spent time on the Buckeyes’ 49-7 blowout of Rutgers, which has a potential NFL pick at receiver in Leonte Carroo. He finished with just three catches for 55 yards in that game. Carroo averaged more than 100 yards and one touchdown in the eight games he played this season.
There’s no secret to how Ohio State limits big plays, just a focus on not letting its safeties get caught in conflicts. Whether that’s jumping a shorter route in the flat and leaving Fuller 1-on-1 deep or flying up into run support, the challenge will be Bell’s to make sure the fastest player on the Irish roster doesn’t get to show it.
“They’re gonna make the safety pick, jump on a little cheese,” Bell said. “If you bite the cheese, they’re gonna hit you over the top. You can’t take the cheese.”