SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Perhaps the story of Will Fuller's rise from under-recruited teen to one of college football's top receivers can be summarized through a pair of fall camp tales.
There the unassuming Penn State commit was, uncertain of his future in light of crippling NCAA sanctions, blending in amid a sea of reporters awaiting entrance to Notre Dame's first preseason practice of the 2012 campaign before one of the scribes alerted a team staffer of the three-star prospect's presence.
And there he was at camp two years later, happy with his flip to Notre Dame but every bit as reserved after a rudimentary freshman year, before coach Brian Kelly injected this wild idea that would help set Fuller off toward a breakout sophomore campaign.
"Coach Kelly came up to me and said: ‘You know, you're my guy, you're going to be the star receiver for us,' and I just took that personal," Fuller said. "He has faith in me and believed in me, and I just started working my butt off ever since he said that to me. I had a great season after that. Coach Kelly put it in my head that I can be a great receiver here."
Not just here at Notre Dame, or back home in Philadelphia at a sold-out Lincoln Financial Field, where Fuller will return to a cheering section of roughly 200 on Saturday as the No. 9 Fighting Irish face unbeaten and No. 21 Temple. Kelly has Fuller convinced he could be a great receiver nationally, and even at the next level, something Fuller is proving throughout a junior campaign that has garnered midseason All-America honors while his pro stock has grown with each of his eight touchdown passes.
It is not that Fuller fails to realize how good he is, or how good he can still be. His father, William, even said "I wouldn't go that far" when a reporter this week dropped the letters "NFL" in the middle of a question -- despite Fuller being projected as high as the first round in some corners.
And it is not that Fuller never lacked for confidence despite entering Notre Dame in the same class as higher-rated receivers Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Robinson -- a pair of pro athlete sons (Torii Hunter and David Robinson) whose names carried plenty of buzz throughout their recruitment.
"He's just shy," his father said. "Even as a little kid, William was quiet. He was high-motored but he was quiet. But once you put that football helmet on him it was like: 'Wow.' If you looked at him playing basketball or baseball, he wasn't as aggressive as when you put him in a football uniform with a helmet on his head. He just took off. He just turned into a different person."
Call it a byproduct of growing up in a house with four sisters. Football, it seemed, was his natural release.
"When you're the only boy in the house, I think you're kind of the low man on the totem pole," said Joe McCourt, Fuller's high school coach. "So I think he's just always had that quiet demeanor about him."
"It allows him to be that animal that's inside," said Greg Garrett, who trained Fuller at Level Forty Training and Performance Center, outside of Philadelphia. "I think everyone has an animal and needs to know when to pull the trigger to turn the light on, and playing football allows him to be that person."
As a freshman at Roman Catholic High, Fuller began training with Garrett. Fueled by the doubts about his size, the now 6-foot, 184-pound Fuller worked with Garrett on his speed, sharpened his footwork and improved his hand-eye coordination. He learned how to change directions quicker. He built upon an explosive first step.
What furthered Fuller's growth even more, however, were the challenges Garrett put before him: Battles with older, eventual college defenders like Virginia's Dom Joseph, Oklahoma's Kass Everett and Navy's Maika Polamalu.
"He thrived off that competition," Garrett said. " ‘This guy's in college, I'm in high school, I'm gonna line up against him.' That was our thing: How to get great is always try to go up against somebody that was considered better than you."
It is a lesson that has served Fuller well even in charmed seasons like this one. Held to just two catches for 37 yards in the Irish's lone loss this season, Fuller paid due credit afterward to Clemson's Mackensie Alexander. He responded in the next two games by tallying eight total catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns in a pair of 41-point outings for Notre Dame.
Fuller has scored in every game but the Clemson one. His 23 touchdown grabs since the start of last season trail only Baylor's Corey Coleman (29) nationally. His 21.94 yards per catch rank seventh in the country.
Fuller has become a new quarterback's best friend, as DeShone Kizer averages 13.2 yards per attempt when throwing in Fuller's direction, and just 7.7 yards when throwing to everyone else, according to ESPN Stats & Info. None of those targets was more memorable than the 39-yard scoring strike with 12 seconds left to escape Virginia with a win in Kizer's first extended action after Malik Zaire's season-ending ankle injury.
Now Fuller is leading the 6-1 Irish toward his hometown for a prime-time showdown against an upstart local program, with the "College GameDay" atmosphere on-hand.
A son of Philly who has the downtown skyline tattooed on his arm, Fuller calls the weekend a dream come true.
"He's always been somebody who never forgot where he came from," McCourt said. "Every once in a while he'll just send me a text and say: ‘Coach, thanks for everything.' Even after the Virginia game when he made the play at the end, he sent me a text like an hour after game saying: ‘Coach, this is awesome. Can you believe it? Thanks for everything.' "