As Notre Dame made, and continues to make, its push for a berth in the College Football Playoff, Will Fuller cemented himself as the kind of go-to playmaker necessary for any shot at a spot in a national semifinal.
Brian Kelly likes to call dependable playmakers "game-wreckers" when discussing opposing teams. Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson was one, and Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey will probably earn the same designation later this month. Fuller is another.
“I would definitely put him up there with somebody that is very, very difficult to defend," Kelly said. “If you double zone (him), you know we can run the football, we have other weapons. He’s that guy that opens up everything for you offensively.”
Fuller did it against Virginia, reeling in a game-winning 39-yard heave from DeShone Kizer as the clock inched toward zero. Two and a half months later, Fuller caught another game-winning touchdown from Kizer, this a 17-yarder with just over two minutes left in his homecoming against Temple at Lincoln Financial Field.
And against Pittsburgh last weekend, Fuller took a flamethrower to Pat Narduzzi’s stubborn plan of trying to defend him with man coverage and no safety help over the top (on Monday, Narduzzi said he wouldn’t change his defensive scheme against Fuller). The result: Seven catches, 152 yards, three touchdowns and a 12-point Notre Dame victory.
Kelly's right, too: When teams scheme to stop Fuller, it opens up the running game and targets for receivers like Chris Brown, Torii Hunter Jr. and Amir Carlisle.
The only team to beat Notre Dame put together the blueprint of how to stop the Irish offense. Clemson stacked the box to stop running back C.J. Prosise (15 carries, 50 yards) and deployed cornerback MacKensie Alexander to shut down Fuller (two catches, 37 yards). The brutal weather conditions were a factor, as were Notre Dame’s poor defensive start, three fumbles and Kelly’s decision to go for two early in the fourth quarter.
But the core of that game was Clemson’s ability to not only stuff Prosise, but muzzle Fuller. No team has been able to do the same since, which is why Notre Dame is in position to beat sub-optimal sides in Wake Forest and Boston College to tee up a season-ending clash at Stanford that'll have massive playoff implications.
“It’s just another day at the office,” Fuller said of his standout afternoon at Pitt. “I’m doing what I have to do. When the ball is in the air, it’s my ball and it’s my job to go get it.”
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Notre Dame hasn't had a player with Fuller's game-wrecking ability since Manti Te'o in 2012, when the Heisman finalist linebacker made a number of critical plays (like his acrobatic fourth quarter interception against Oklahoma) to push the Irish to a 12-0 regular season and berth in the BCS Championship. The identity of that 2012 team was in a defense that consistently kept opponents out of the end zone, with Te'o as its emotional and physical leader.
Fuller isn't necessarily a leader on the Irish offense, but if Notre Dame needs another big play to stay alive in the College Football Playoff race, he'll likely be the player Kelly & Co. look to. He has 900 yards on only 44 catches and is averaging a touchdown on about one in every six targets. And it's no coincidence he didn't score a touchdown against Clemson, but did in all eight of Notre Dame's wins.
"He's a weapon," Kelly said. "He's a guy that's feared by defenses because of his ability to get over the top of any coverage. ... Certainly somebody that is going to impact each and every game."