Oct. 20, 2015
By Denise Skwarcan
Philadelphia is a city is known for many things, such as the National Football League’s Eagles, the Philly cheesesteak sandwich and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose steps were made famous by Sylvester Stallone during his triumphant run in the film “Rocky”.
The City of Brotherly Love, however, also is rich in history. People visit every year to see the famous cracked Liberty Bell, the residences of Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross and Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed.
Now one of Philadelphia’s own – University of Notre Dame junior wide receiver Will Fuller – is making some of his own history. And, while he may not re-write the course of America, he’s already had his name etched in the Irish history books.
As a sophomore in 2014, Fuller led Notre Dame in receptions (76), receiving yards (1,094) and receiving TDs (15), all of which were the most in single-season school history by a sophomore.
His third season under the Dome could provide even more glossy numbers. After seven games in 2015, Fuller once again is leading the Irish pack with 32 grabs for 702 yards and eight touchdowns, including the spectacular catch with 12 seconds left in the game to give the Irish the victory over Virginia on Sept. 12.
“It makes me feel great that the coaches put that much trust in me,” says Fuller who was awarded the game ball following the game in Charlottesville. “Then to give me that as a reward…makes me feel like I’m doing a great job.”
Fuller, who has the Philadelphia skyline tattooed on his right arm, was a first-team selection as a senior on the Pennsylvania Sports Writers AAAA All-State football team after making 57 catches for 932 yards and eight scores for Roman Catholic High School in 2012. He originally gave a verbal commitment to Penn State, but a trip to South Bend and the idea of combing great football and academics swayed the 6-0, 184-pound Fuller to change his decision.
“Seeing (Notre Dame play for a national championship in 2012) didn’t play a big part in my decision because I was committed before,” says Fuller who had given his verbal pledge in August of that year. “But seeing that and knowing I was getting the best of both worlds…one of the top football teams and some of the best academics is what I came here for.”
Besides Penn State, Fuller also fielded offers from other east coast schools like Rutgers and Boston College, but noted that his area wasn’t a hotbed for recruiting activity. Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly was happy to step in and re-establish the connection.
“It's nice to get back into the city of Philadelphia and Roman Catholic in particular,” Kelly said on National Signing Day in 2012. “Again, when we talk about profile schools that really hit and understand Notre Dame, Roman Catholic is one of those institutions. If there was a young man that we believe flew under the radar a little bit, it was William Fuller. The thing that really clearly stands out are his ball skills. He can run and catch the football. Any time that we got a chance to observe him, he was running and catching, just terrific ball skills. We think as he develops physically, he also has that speed, that top-end speed, that can obviously impact football games.”
Unlike many first-year players, Fuller did have the opportunity to play as a freshman, seeing action in all 13 games in 2013 while earning starts on three occasions. While he was credited with six catches for 160 yards and a touchdown, Fuller was pleased that his hard work translated into playing time.
“I just wanted to compete, and (the coaches) told me I had an opportunity to compete for a position,” Fuller says. “So I just came in and worked hard and tried to do everything the coaches wanted me to do. Then I got my first touchdown (against Air Force), and that was probably one of the happiest moments I had. Seeing the picture (of the catch afterwards) and the smile on my face…I saw how happy football makes me.”
Still, it wasn't all smooth sailing. Despite the on-field opportunities and success - albeit modest - Fuller struggled adjusting to many facets of the college game, most notably, the speed of the game.
“Understanding the playbook and the different positions in it,” says Fuller when asked about the challenges he faced in his first season. “I was just really confused, and it took a little while for me to get used to it. Then toward the middle of the season when I started playing more and getting put into more game situations, it really started to make more sense.”
The strides he made during his freshman season, set Fuller up for a phenomenal sophomore campaign in 2014.
Against Northwestern last, Fuller matched his freshman numbers after hauling in nine catches for 159 yards en route to leading the Irish receivers that season with All-America type numbers. His productivity was somewhat of a surprise, but by the end of the season Fuller wasn’t completely taken aback when he was chosen as the squad’s offensive MVP.
“I just went in and tried to do my job, and then things started turning in different ways so fast,” Fuller says of the numbers he put up a year ago. “I still can’t explain how it happened. At the beginning of the year (the MVP award) wasn’t on my mind at all, but it wasn’t a huge shock after I put up good numbers.”
Now the bar has been raised to another level which Fuller’s coaches feel he is capable of reaching.
Despite not being able to fly under the radar anymore, Kelly – if somewhat prophetic – noted heading into pre-season camp that Fuller is capable of matching or exceeding last year’s numbers.
“I think Will's numbers will still be high because of his versatility,” Kelly says. “As you know, he's a deep-ball threat player but he can also catch the short, quick slant. So when you talk about volume of catches, they have to have versatility at that position. He's a dynamic receiver.”
For his part, Fuller is worrying less about how other defenses will be trying to neutralize him and focusing more on his game.
“I don’t want to get complacent and by not doing that I think I can have the same kind of numbers that I did last year,” Fuller says. “I had a good (fall) camp and I got better in a lot of areas. I know defensive backs are going to want to go against me. I know they’re going to be aware of what I did last year. But I can’t worry too much about what they’re going to do. I just have to focus on my job and my ability. I’ve gotten off to a fast start, and now I have to keep it up.”
Handling all the added attention on the field is something Fuller feels he manages well. He also believes that he has become better at being more of a vocal leader. The one area that he continues to adjust to is his popularity off the field with the media. Interviews and questions are not his favorite thing to deal with, but he’s getting more comfortable with the responsibility.
"I love big moments and being under the lights,” Fuller says. “If my number is called, I get excited. I think I’m good at those pressure situations. I try to lead by example but I’m also trying to talk more to the younger guys, especially the ones at my position. It means a lot coming in as a freshman and then evolving into a different person who is able to have an influence on other guys on the team. As for all (the media attention), it used to bother me. But I’m getting quite used to it.”
One thing that hasn’t bothered him has been what seems to be the ever-changing quarterback position. Fuller has now played with four quarterbacks in his two plus seasons in an Irish uniform – Tommy Rees (2013), Everett Golson (2014), Malik Zaire and now DeShone Kizer this season. Regardless of age or experience, Fuller sees the person in the QB position as the person leading the Irish offense. And, for his part, Fuller needs to be as consistent as possible when he’s on the field.
“We’re just trying to get our jobs done regardless of who’s out there,” Fuller says. “I knew DeShone was going to play well. He's a really composed guy (who) has a lot of energy. So I haven't changed the way I run anything at all. (The quarterbacks) get the ball to us and we catch it."
It’s change and adversity to which the whole team has adjusted, and not just Fuller. When the season started, Kelly appeared to have the deepest, most talented roster of his Notre Dame tenure. But a positive 4-0 start has been somewhat negated by season-ending injuries to critical players. DL Jarron Jones was lost for the season in fall camp followed by RB Tarean Folston vs. Texas, Malik Zaire and Durham Smythe at Virginia and Drue Tranquill during win against Georgia Tech at home. But it’s a fact of playing football which the Irish have been through before and, if anything, it’s fueling Notre Dame’s competitive fire.
“We’re still the same team,” Fuller says. “We feel (for the players that have been injured), but we know we need to stay positive to get where we want to be. And those guys may not be on the field, but they’re still with us. So they’re motivating us, and we have to get it done for them.”
With Fuller helping to lead the way.