SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Virginia committed perhaps the most egregious sin a defense can make against Notre Dame when it let Will Fuller get behind its secondary. The result was a game-winning, 39-yard touchdown to the guy who’s emerged as Notre Dame’s best playmaker over the last 12 months.
Senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell goes against Fuller plenty in practice and was baffled how Virginia’s secondary let Fuller get open on a double move/sluggo route.
“I know it’s not happening like that (if I’m on him),” Russell grinned. “I can’t tell you exactly what happens, but there’s no way. A sluggo? Don’t get beat on a sluggo, dude. Not a sluggo. You know, a sluggo? I love Will, but not a sluggo. Come on, bro.”
But here’s the thing about that season-saving touchdown: Even if Russell or Virginia cornerback Demetrious Nicholson defended it well, Fuller still probably would’ve caught the ball. It was the product of a perfect pass by quarterback DeShone Kizer and Fuller’s improved ball skills to easily reel in a towering throw over his left (outside) shoulder.
Fuller’s speed, too, had plenty to do with it. Kizer said he initially thought he underthrew Fuller, but once he saw the junior running in full stride, he knew it’d be a touchdown. Center and two-time captain Nick Martin agreed.
“When I saw the ball in the air, I looked over and saw No. 7 running, and I knew right then it was going to be a touchdown,” Martin said. “And to have that confidence in a player to know that he has that ability, he has confidence in everyone in your offense.”
Fuller has 19 touchdowns over his last 15 games, more than any FBS receiver. He’s averaging 22.2 yards per reception in two games this season and said he has a better understanding of how defenses will play him in Year 2 as a starter.
Russell said the difficulty of defending Fuller is if a cornerback bites on a curl route and Fuller’s running a go, there’s no catching him. Play back to defend the curl and a corner has to make a one-on-one tackle on him.
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And even if you’re giving Fuller a 10-yard cushion, he’s so fast that he can blow past a defender if they’re backpedaling or turning around.
“If it’s even, he’s leaving anybody,” Russell said. “No matter who you are as a corner, you could run a 4.2 (40-yard dash), you’re not catching Will turning and going backwards.”
And if a defense rolls its coverage over the top of Fuller on the wide side of the field, it can be exploited by Notre Dame’s other playmakers — like running back C.J. Prosise and a group of wide receivers in which coach Brian Kelly & Co. are confident.
“You can roll the coverage over the top of him, which forces you to strong rotate to the field, which puts you at a potential disadvantage in the running game where you can be short,” Kelly said, “or you can play cover two and double zone him. And in spread, you can be really thin down the middle of the field.
“… You can double him up, but you're opening up other opportunities.”
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Notre Dame’s offense was dealt a pair of haymakers when it lost running back Tarean Folston and quarterback Malik Zaire to season-ending injuries in the first two weeks of the season. But Fuller may very well be good enough to bail out the Irish over the next two and a half months, as he did last Saturday in Charlottesville.
Fuller has a quiet confidence about him both on and off the field. He knows he’s good, and he’s proven to be difficult to defend when he’s confidently running his routes on Saturdays.
For now, the only cornerback who’s proven he can stop Fuller — or, at least, said he can stop Fuller — is Russell. And those two won’t have a chance to really compete against each other unless they square off in the NFL someday.
“KeiVarae is gonna talk his talk,” Fuller smiled. “Maybe I’ll see him down the road.”