Will Fuller, An Example of Speed Trumping Scheme

Photo: Derik Hamilton // USA TODAY Sports
Photo: Derik Hamilton // USA TODAY Sports

Football can be an extremely complicated sport. If you’ve seen an NFL playsheet or listened to a quarterback call a play, you know what I’m talking about. It wouldn’t be uncommon to hear something to the effect of “Trips right, Jet motion, Y option, Z out, X Banana, Power Left”, which means depending on the look to could be a run left, a pass right, or a give to the jet sweep.

Coaches and players will pour over film to discover tendencies, watch how a certain player will run a certain route in a certain situation and get a feel for the other team’s personnel. Hours upon hours will be spent looking for a small little schematical edge that can make all the difference. Try to explain football to someone who’s never seen it in five minutes. It can’t be done; too many moving parts, too much nuance. It’s all just too complicated. Unless you have Will Fuller. Then it’s as easy as apple pie.

Speed is a wonderful thing. It doesn’t require scheme, it doesn’t require a favorable matchup, and it doesn’t require hours of film study. And Will Fuller has got all the speed. His speed is such that it doesn’t even come in the form of a 40 time, which is normally commonplace for someone like him. Think about it, have you ever heard Fuller’s 40 time referenced? By anyone? It’s generally standard, X player used his 4.3 40 speed on that play. The only thing that seems to be agreed upon by all of those who are fortunate enough to call Notre Dame football games is that Fuller has either elite speed or, the ever elusive, ludicrous speed.

Fuller makes the game easy for anyone to understand. We need a big play so we are going to run a go route to our very fast guy and he is going to beat your not as fast guy and it’s going to be a touchdown, which is how the situation played out in the third quarter against Virginia. The commentators said it perfectly, it’s just speed, not much to break down. Anyone can understand what happened there.

This has been a theme throughout Fuller’s career, he just flat out runs by people, whether it was his first career reception against future first round corner Trae Waynes that went for 36 yards, or a poor safety alone in the middle of the field for Pittsburgh on the third play of Saturday’s game. It’s his propensity to haul in the deep ball that has allowed him to average 20 yards per reception in 2015 and 40 yards on his 12 touchdown catches this season.

Incredibly, Fuller’s prowess for speed was not an all-the-time thing, as he admitted to Jac Collinsworth in a one on one interview a couple of weeks ago. (Side note: Fuller’s emergence is matched only by that of Collinsworth, who has to be the most famous non-athlete, that is a current student, of all-time. The guy is everywhere.) He wasn’t the fastest guy in high school, and he even confessed to being caught from behind a couple of times on long runs, which for a speed guy is the ultimate shame.

It was, in fact, the Notre Dame coaches who told him that he was recruited for his speed, and it was that revelation that provided the impetus for him to work on his speed. For those who follow recruiting closely, the signing of Will Fuller brought no promises of a speed merchant who would keep opposing secondary members up at night. He was a run of the mill four star receiver who had nice ball skills and some shiftiness in the open field.

In fact, his classmate Torii Hunter Jr. was the higher regarded player at the receiver position, and his catastrophic leg injury in the postseason was seen as a big blow to the incoming class. No shame to Hunter Jr., who gave way to an All-American, and is apparently now a two-way player while coming on as a receiver this year (Second side note: Hunter Jr. is playing defense now? When did THAT happen?) Fuller’s speed work paid off and the big plays came immediately in his freshman season as he caught six balls for 160 yards and a score. He broke out in 2014 with a 1,000+ yard season and 15 touchdowns, becoming one of the most feared receivers in the country.

Fuller’s impact on the 2015 Notre Dame team is obvious. It’s been the most explosive Notre Dame team of the Brian Kelly regime; they have 10 receptions of 40 yards or more, for which Fuller is responsible for seven of those.  Notre Dame is 6th nationally at 7.17 yards per play and DeShone Kizer is 15th nationally in yards per attempt. To say that Fuller has been a big factor in Kizer’s development would be an understatement; his first 2nd and 3rd career touchdowns were deep balls to Fuller, and 10 of his 16 total passing touchdowns have come at the hands of #7.

To go along with the theme of this piece, he makes the game very easy for everyone, and there is no better illustration of that than the opening touchdown against Georgia Tech, Kizer’s first start. It came on a 3rd and 20, and as anyone will tell you, not a lot of plays to run on 3rd and 20. No matter, just run a go to Fuller, and despite Georgia Tech playing a defense specifically designed not to give up the deep ball, it was a quick six.

It makes sense that when you have a weapon like Fuller on the outside who is likely to draw a lot of attention, that will open up things for other receivers, which was shown against Clemson. Intent on keeping Fuller down, Clemson routinely sent safeties over the top of Fuller while also putting him in man coverage underneath. This was a strategy that was greatly helped by the weather conditions, and it also allowed Chris Brown, Torii Hunter Jr. and CJ Prosise to have career days receiving. Despite monsoon like conditions, that trio combined for 235 yards on 13 catches and two touchdowns. And even given the extra attention, Fuller hauled in two passes for 37 yards and was one bad drop away from a huge play from which he might have been able to run till he hit the Atlantic Ocean.

Speaking of drops, if there is a chink in Fuller’s armor, it’s his annoying habit of having a case of the dropsies. To go along with his key third down drop against Clemson, Fuller is credited with six drops this season from College Football Film Room, and if there were to be a “bobbles” stat, he’d be sure to lead the nation. It’s the type of thing that someone could work on during their senior season, while finishing up their degree, getting stronger in the weight room, breaking every receiver record Notre Dame has while leading the team to a playoff berth (all typed in the “wishful thinking” font).

Truth be told, it will be hard to keep Fuller around after this season. He’s on pace for regular season stats of 1,200 yards on 59 receptions and 16 touchdowns, giving him 31 touchdowns receiving in his 25 games as a starter, which is an incredible number. Most scouts put him in the top 30 of all draft eligible players, and if he were to receive a first round grade, that would be hard to pass up.

So, let’s enjoy him while we can, it’s not very often we have a guy that even the best at USC can’t handle, and if he builds on his stellar junior year and ends up helping Notre Dame to the College Football Playoff, he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest big play Notre Dame receivers ever, which wouldn’t be bad for a guy who didn’t consider himself fast in high school. He’s certainly plenty fast now.

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One Comment

  1. @ Greg…”run of the mill 4 star recruit”…is that YOUR assessment?
    and…”Speaking of drops…Fuller is credited with 6 drops…” …how many of those were interference non-calls. Replay shows it all the time, once he gets beyond a DB, there’s jersey grabbing and/or hooking. Sometimes it’s called, most times not.

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