Watching Notre Dame rising junior Will Fuller run go routes, one almost feels bad for the defender.
When Fuller gets a free release, chances are no one is going to catch him, and he’s going to score a touchdown if the ball makes its way to him on time. It happened 15 times in 2014, tying the Notre Dame single season record for touchdown receptions in a season.
This year, Fuller looks poised to put up the same big numbers.
After previewing Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame’s 2014 Defensive Player of the Year, yesterday, it seemed only right to follow with an early look at Fuller, who was Notre Dame’s 2014 Offensive Player of the Year.
Fuller came almost out of nowhere last season to catch 76 passes for 1,094 yards in addition to his 15 touchdown grabs.
In 2013, Fuller caught just six passes for 160 yards and one TD, which accounted for 47 of his yards.
With DaVaris Daniels out for the season in 2014, several people openly questioned if the wide receivers would be able to compensate for the loss. Fuller made people almost forget about Daniels.
Fuller’s numbers were head and shoulders above anyone else on the Irish roster. He was tied for third in the nation in touchdown receptions, was 21st in yards and tied for 27th in receptions.
His coming out party came in the season-opener against Rice when he got free for a 75-yard touchdown.
The end zone celebrations almost never ended as he’d go on to catch two touchdowns against both Syracuse and North Carolina, and hauled in three TD receptions against Northwestern. There were only two games in 2014 in which he didn’t catch a touchdown.
At 6-foot, 180-pounds, Fuller isn’t a physically dominating presence. It’s his rare speed that’s his key to success, combined with good vision in the open field and strong hands.
“He’s such a gifted player vertically,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said this spring. “There’s nobody, really, that can touch him down the field when he gets a release.”
During spring practice, it didn’t appear as if it was going to be much of an adjustment for Fuller to get used to catching balls from new starting quarterback Malik Zaire, who steps in under center full-time this season after the transfer of Everett Golson to Florida State.
The biggest highlight-reel play of April’s Blue-Gold game came on a 68-yard touchdown pass from Zaire to Fuller.
“That was perfect,” Fuller said that day of Zaire’s throw. “I had to keep running.”
Several times when practice was open to media during the spring, Zaire and Fuller appeared to have good chemistry, and Zaire looked to routinely hit the speedster in stride, which is one of the biggest keys to success for Fuller. If he has to stop to wait on a throw, it gives the defender a chance to catch up.
As teams shift coverages in 2015 to try to protect over the top against Fuller, it could open up more opportunities over the middle for players like tight ends Durham Smythe and Alize Jones and wide receivers Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle and Corey Robinson.
Even if his touchdowns take a dip, Fuller will still be a potent weapon, and one of the keys to a high-powered Irish offense.
But with speed like his, he should still run free from his share of defenders on the way to the end zone, too.