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Notre Dame's Will Fuller always seemed destined for greatness

WR first turned heads at Roman Catholic. Now, he's wowing the entire nation, and is heading home for big matchup with Temple.

ASSOCIATED PRESS Will Fuller is currently fourth all-time in touchdown catches at Notre Dame, with 24.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Will Fuller is currently fourth all-time in touchdown catches at Notre Dame, with 24.Read more

AFTER THE THIRD touchdown, Joe McCourt winced and adjusted his headset. McCourt, then the coach at Roman Catholic High, wasn't sure what he was seeing. He wasn't even sure he was speaking to anyone when he inadvertently blurted out to no one in particular, "This kid is going to be big-time."

It seems like eons ago when Will Fuller, the 6-foot, 185-pound Notre Dame junior receiver, made his entrance onto football's larger stage, catching three touchdowns on the first three passes thrown to him in his high school debut as a sophomore at Roman.

But McCourt and anyone else there that day saw the gestation of a special talent. Now, the college football world sees Fuller's fruition every time the Fighting Irish play. Up next, following a bye week, is a prime-time TV date next Saturday at 8 p.m. on ABC against No. 22 Temple at Lincoln Financial Field.

Of course, the buzz is about Temple's first-ever 7-0 start, and first top-25 spot since 1979. How will Fuller respond playing back in his hometown?

In only his second season as a full-time receiver, Fuller finds himself mentioned among other great Notre Dame receivers, such as Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija, for career touchdown receptions. Fuller is fourth all-time with 24 TD catches, behind Floyd (37), Samardzija (27) and Tate (26).

This year, Fuller is eighth in the nation in yards per catch (21.9), 10th in receiving yards (702), eighth in touchdown receptions (eight) and 14th in receiving yards per game (100.3). What's more, Fuller is doing this with backup redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer, who replaced starter Malik Zaire after he broke his right ankle in Notre Dame's second game of the season at Virginia.

That same game, Kizer found Fuller for the winning touchdown with 12 seconds to play.

This season follows Fuller's sterling sophomore year in which he started all 13 games, leading Notre Dame in receptions (76), receiving yards (1,094), receiving TDs (15), and third nationally in TD catches (15).

But none of this surprises McCourt or others who have had to coach or play against the quiet star.

"I knew Will would be the player he's turned out to be, and with guys like him, you know there is a something special there," McCourt said. "I knew Will would be playing on Sundays when he was at Roman. There's that something that's hard to explain when you're around a special player like him.

"Will is the only one that I was around that was on my team, or who I coached, that I knew was something special beyond major college football. The only other player that special was when I played against (Cardinal O'Hara's) Kevin Jones. I knew when I stepped on the field against O'Hara; I had to bring my 'A' game, because that guy was something special. You just know."

As did Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly about Fuller. It's just that Fuller had some growing up and adjusting to do when he first arrived in South Bend. In high school, it was easy for Fuller. He was faster and able to extend himself much taller than his 6-foot frame allowed.

When Fuller began playing football, he started as a center, and didn't play wide receiver until he was in seventh grade. Something, however, always followed him. He wore the labels of being too thin, not strong enough to play at Notre Dame's height.

"Will's always been a shy kid, he likes his comfort zone," said Bill Fuller, Will's father. "There were the doubters out there, though. Not many, but they were out there. Coming out of Roman, I remember some of the things said about him on the Internet by these scouts.

"He heard that he wasn't tall enough or fast enough to play at Notre Dame. He's always been conscious about his weight. It's why he wanted to prove everybody wrong - that he could play at a major college level. You can tell Will 10 things, nine positive. But he'll hear the one criticism above everything else."

Reed-thin or not, there was only one Will Fuller on the field every time at Roman. At Notre Dame, there were 50 like him. He had to distinguish himself again.

Apparently, he has.

"I think Will's growth owes to recognizing how to practice first," Kelly said. "He really didn't understand how to practice the right way when he got here. Not that he didn't want to, but it's about learning every day and competing in practice. I think that learning process came from watching a guy like T.J. Jones. That really helped him, too.

"And then there is Will's physical development, putting on strength and being able to get off press coverage. We all knew about his speed. At least I did, and our staff did. His development came in practice, and his physical development in the weight room."

Kelly also loved the way Fuller tracked the ball down the field. To the Irish coach, that set Fuller apart from other receivers his age. Kelly continues to see that today. On deep passes, some receivers have a hard time picking up the ball. Fuller never does.

If you watch the replay of the game-winning catch against Virginia, you'll notice Fuller looked the ball into his waiting hands.

But it was a process. And not an easy one.

"Anytime you go off to college, it's different and you have to get used to the grind and a whole new routine," said Fuller, who majors in psychology and is on schedule to graduate in May 2017. "There were a lot of upperclassmen that I used to speak to my freshman year, when you think you should be playing more than you are.

"I think what helped me was believing in myself and taking advice from upperclassmen. I would say the success I've had has come as a surprise, because I didn't have the kind of freshman year that I wanted. It's taken some time. I've learned patience. But I am excited to be coming home (Oct. 31). I can't wait to play in Philly. It will be the first time I'll be playing home since high school.

"But I won't be more motivated than I am for any other game. I don't need extra motivation, because I'm always motivated to play football."

Fuller acknowledges he's thinking about the next step. He says it's always been his goal to play in the NFL, and he says it's right in front of him. He thinks it's a matter of being consistent.

He's also found confidence. At Roman, McCourt had to actually get on him about how good he was.

"That bothered me," McCourt said. "Will's personality didn't translate onto the field. He's quiet and humble, but he just came out of his shell to do these spectacular things.

"There were times when I had to tell Will how good he was, and as a coach, you never want to do that. With him, I always felt like I had to keep building his confidence up. I had to tell him that he was the best receiver I ever saw."

Although initially reluctant, Fuller has come around to McCourt's way of thinking.

"I think self-motivation is one thing that I've learned and picked up here, because you can't rely on anybody but yourself," Fuller said. "I have done a lot of growing up here at Notre Dame. I have a starting job, and patience has kept me here. It was something new for me. I learned a lot by watching."

Now everyone watches him.