Dec. 28, 2014
In the sweltering summer workouts before the University of Notre Dame's 2014 football season kicked off, sophomore wide receiver Will Fuller ran route after route after route.
With Notre Dame's depth at the wide receiver position taking a hit, Fuller heard his number called frequently as the Fighting Irish looked to fill in a critical position.
"We had people gone, we had a lot of injuries, so I got in a lot of reps, sometimes eight plays in a row," Fuller said. "It was hard, but it was really helpful. I think pre-season camp turned out to be a great time for me."
Fuller, a 6-foot-0, 180-pound speedster who played high school football at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, was coming off a freshman season in which he caught six passes for 160 yards and one touchdown. As a sophomore, Fuller put up those kinds of numbers in one game, hauling in nine catches for 159 yards and three touchdowns against Northwestern.
More of a quantum leap than a breakthrough, Fuller turned in All-America-type numbers in his second season strapping on the familiar gold helmet.
Fuller has snared 71 catches this season for 1,037 yards and 14 TDs, the most catches, yards receiving and receiving touchdowns in Notre Dame's legendary football history by a sophomore. His 14 touchdown catches are second in the nation to Colorado State's Rashard Higgins, who has 17. Fuller's TD total is one away from the Notre Dame single-season record for receiving touchdowns, set by Jeff Samardzija in 2005 and tied by Rhema McKnight in 2006 and Golden Tate in 2009.
Notre Dame will be counting on Fuller's receiving talents when the Irish take on LSU in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The Irish (7-5) and Tigers (8-4) are set to kick off at 3 p.m. EST Tuesday. ESPN has the telecast.
While Fuller had the speed to get on the field, getting a handle on the game enabled him to stay on the field and make an impact.
"My focus after my freshman year was all about becoming a better student of the game," Fuller said. "I didn't have an understanding of the playbook as a freshman. Coach (Mike) Denbrock really helped me a lot, helping me run routes, encouraging me. Chris Brown helped me a lot, too. He brings energy to everything. I've been able to feed off his energy, and that's helped me take things to the next level."
Notre Dame junior left guard Nick Martin said Fuller has been a huge weapon for the Irish, thriving in one-on-one match-ups and displaying long-ball speed.
"Will is obviously very talented," Martin said. "He's done a very good job of doing everything he needed to do to take care of business. He really worked hard, and it's shown this season. He's naturally very quick, and now he's developing a better understanding of the game. I think one of the things that really impresses me is how calm and composed he is in any situation."
Martin thinks Fuller will continue to hone his craft and be one of the nation's top receivers next season.
"Will has done so much for us and improved so much, and I'll think he's going to get even better," Martin said. "The sky's the limit for him. The bowl experience is going to be really good for him. It's another month of watching film, going live, learning more about the game and then matching up against a great team. I know he'll step up his game even more next year."
Fuller looks at the bowl game as an opportunity for the Irish to start carving out an identity for next season.
"I think playing in the bowl game this year will definitely help us set a tone for next year," Fuller said. "We're playing against a great team, SEC talent. We'll learn a lot about what we need to work on next year. We're really young. Next year we'll have a lot of guys who come in with a lot of experience. We have the potential to be a great team.
"We're all really excited about this game. It's going to be big for us. It's an opportunity for us to go up against a great team and show what we have here at Notre Dame."
For Fuller, he's hoping the 2014 season isn't so much a breakthrough season as it is a springboard season to future success.
"I've gained a lot of experience this season, and that's helped me read coverages better," Fuller said. "I'm doing the little things better now than I did when the season started.
"I think I'm going to be focused in the off-season on gaining weight and being more physical to help us next season," Fuller continued. "Getting more physical will give me another dimension to my game. I'm already fast, but being more physical will give me another advantage."
And that's an advantage that will help the Irish passing game take flight next season.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent