To Beat Notre Dame, Ohio State Knows Stopping Star Receiver and 'Home Run Hitter' Will Fuller is Essential

By Eric Seger on December 28, 2015 at 4:30 pm
Wide receiver Will Fuller is a matchup nightmare for defenders.
via MGoBlog

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If this were baseball, Notre Dame's Will Fuller would bat cleanup.

"He’s a great player, phenomenal player. Definitely their go-to guy, their home run hitter," Ohio State safety Vonn Bell said Monday at Fiesta Bowl media kickoff. "We’ve got some answers for that. Our corners have to be on high alert, our whole back end has to be on high alert, wherever he’s at."

The No. 7 Buckeyes take on the No. 8 Fighting Irish New Year's Day at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, the final matchup for both teams in the 2015 season. For Fuller, Ohio State's defensive backs—led by Bell, an All-American—present a challenge unlike any other he's face this season.

"They're actually a lot different. They press a lot," Fuller said Monday. "They got some tall guys and bigger guys that play well. It's going to be a fun game."

Fuller is set to go toe-to-toe with Buckeye corners Eli Apple and Gareon Conley, both who are eligible to enter the NFL Draft following this season as a redshirt sophomores. Fuller can do the same after his breakout season in 2015, where he led the Irish with 56 catches for 1,145 yards and 13 touchdowns. His 20.5 yards per reception average is 12th in the country. Like Bell said, he's a home run hitter, similarly in the sense that Devin Smith was for the Buckeyes during his career.

"He has a similarity of Devin Smith, Philly Brown ... he's not Sammy Watkins. Devin Smith, he's a home run hitter and then Philly Brown. A combination of them," Bell said. "The body of Philly but the speed of Devin."

Fuller had huge success last season on tunnel screen plays where he caught the ball on the outside with blockers in front of him and made plays. This season, he's had more success down the field after blowing past defenders.

His lowest catch output this season was against No. 1 Clemson Oct. 3, when he tallied two grabs for 37 yards in a driving rainstorm. In nine of 12 games this season, Fuller scored a touchdown. He also has 16 catches of 25 yards or more.

"Our guys are going to be up on them, pressed up and all those kinds of things," Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. "The ability to make the plays, because they're going to take shots to him. He's a deep ball threat. He's a guy that is honestly as fast as any guy we've seen in a long time. It's going to be a big challenge."

Fuller said his toughest game came against Temple on Halloween, because of the way the Owls took away the middle of the field and their corners played harder than any defensive backs he's ever faced. He caught five passes for 46 yards and a score from quarterback DeShone Kizer that day in Philadelphia, when the Irish escaped with a 24-20 victory after a late defensive stop following Fuller's touchdown.

“Our guys are going to be up on them, pressed up and all those kinds of things. The ability to make the plays, because they're going to take shots to him. He's a deep ball threat. He's a guy that is honestly as fast as any guy we've seen in a long time. It's going to be a big challenge.”– Luke Fickell on Notre Dame WR Will Fuller

"He played so hard, but it was fun to go up against him, especially being on the road," Fuller said.

Notre Dame's offense isn't shy about taking shots down the field, and the majority of them head Fuller's way. No other receiver on roster has more than three receiving touchdowns this season, or even averages 50 yards per game.

"They’re going to take shots deep in empty. With all the film we watched, that’s their guy," Bell said. "We know wherever he’s at, the ball is coming. We just have to be locked up and alert."

Fuller said he studied tape from Ohio State's 49-7 victory at Rutgers Oct. 24 heavily, because of how the Buckeyes completely shut down a hobbled Leonte Carroo.

They did it with Bell patrolling the middle of the field and safety Tyvis Powell playing close to line to stop the run. After that, the onus fell on Apple and Conley to check Carroo at the line of scrimmage in press coverage and not get beat.

A similar game plan could be in store with Fuller attempting to streak down the sideline deep for Brian Kelly and the Irish New Year's Day.

"That's a good way to keep everything inside," Fuller said. "The thing we need to do is get the run game going so they have to have their safeties come up and try to defend the run and get behind them."

Added Fickell: "Our ability to mix it up some, change up the looks and maybe even the coverage concepts at times (will be important). The big play ability is the unique ability he has, just to not take the top off but they'll throw the screens to him and stuff back inside and a lot of things that they Devin Smith-types of guys don't do as much."

Kizer is bound to chuck it deep on more than one occasion in the Fiesta Bowl, especially if Fuller can get a step on Apple and Conley. Even if he can't, the ball is still sure to continue coming his way. That's the way its been all season for Notre Dame.

After all, Fuller is the Irish's best chance at making explosive plays offensively.

"They’re going to take shots downfield. That’s where they’re going to try and get it," Bell said. "If they get a (pass interference), they’ll get the yardage there. They’re going to try to take a shot to their guy. They trust him. Like I said, that’s their home run hitter and they’re going to try to get him the ball early and we’ll see where we’re at."

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