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Will Fuller continues to make defenses pay after breakout season

Will Fuller, who had 142 receiving yards and two touchdowns against Texas, hasn't let success go to his head. Jon Durr/Getty Images

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Malik Zaire is grateful for Will Fuller, in case there was any doubt. Yes, the Notre Dame quarterback sees a guy who broke open for 142 yards and two touchdowns Saturday, helping Zaire navigate his first home start with relative ease. But he also sees a receiver whose even-keel demeanor belies the superstar diva label attached to so many with Fuller’s credentials.

Zaire is even willing to invoke one of the NFL’s top rookies from last season to prove his point.

“That’s the same thing with Zack Martin,” Zaire said. “Zack Martin was such a great player that people really didn’t talk about him until he was gone. That’s how you know you’re really a special player and you’re a special talent not only on your team but in the football world, because when you see your name called in the first round it’s not a surprise. Because when you look at your body of work, they’ve done so many great things that I think it’s a testament to (Fuller) not having too many negatives.”

Perhaps opposing secondaries finally will learn their lessons, though they can be forgiven if they have relied on anything outside of film study. Despite a 1,094-yard, 15-touchdown season last fall, Fuller often is an afterthought in discussions among the nation’s elite. Just mentioning his name in the presence of most Irish officials spawns a conversation about his snub last year from the 10-man Biletnikoff semifinalist list. It is probably no coincidence that Fuller is now front and center on the team’s 2015 media guide cover, ahead of five captains and a potential No. 1 draft pick (Ronnie Stanley).

Few saw this coming. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell confessed he had other guys in mind when thinking about who would fill in for top returning receiver DaVaris Daniels when he served his year-long suspension last season.

“Will Fuller wasn’t the one that was supposed to step up,” Russell said. “On paper it looked like Chris Brown, everybody was talking about Corey Robinson, but it was interesting to see Will, the youngster, kind of step up and really play a role. I wouldn’t see 15 (touchdowns) either, but at the end of the day, it’s one of those unsung heroes. When you want to make a play, you’ve got to do it, and he’s one of those guys that wants to make a play at all times and you’ve seen that fire in his eyes as a true freshman.”

Head coach Brian Kelly’s description of Fuller speaks to how the junior sneaks up on everybody.

“Very deceptive route-runner,” Kelly said. “He sets up his moves extremely well.”

Fuller was hardly considered a major coup as a recruit, as he was a three-star Penn State de-commit out of Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High. He saw action in every game as a freshman but had just six catches, 160 yards and one touchdown to show for it. That may partially explain how he has been able to fly under the radar.

“I’m just a humble guy,” Fuller said. “I wasn’t always good, so I’m just going to stay level-headed till I get where I want to go.”

Zaire joked that Fuller is not the most talkative person in the world. Still, that has not exactly made the lack of hype any less perplexing.

“I don’t know, that’s a great question,” receivers coach Mike Denbrock said of Fuller’s low profile. “I think Will is a tremendous talent in a lot of areas. He’s a very smart football player. He’s very quiet, maybe that’s why. He doesn’t toot his own horn too much, he just kind of goes about his business. I think among his teammates and among this football team, I think he’s got plenty of recognition.”

Denbrock saw signs of Fuller’s ascent in the spring of 2014, when an unusually green Irish receiving corps allowed him to show off his speed in 1-on-1 situations. That begat confidence, which begat more opportunities, which begat a 76-catch season that caught plenty off-guard.

Those who have taken notice, at least.

Asked if the lack of accolades bothers him, Fuller said, “Not at all. I’m going to do what I have to do. I’m just going to ball out for my brothers and keep it up.”