Aaron Fuller hasn’t surpassed Chris Petersen’s expectations.
But that’s because the Washington head coach saw his potential all along.
Fuller could have had a similar season last year, Petersen said, if he’d been given the opportunity. Through eight games, Fuller is leading the Huskies 42 receptions for 652 yards and three touchdowns. He finished the 2017 season with 26 catches for 291 yards and one touchdown.
“He’s always been very sure-handed and a smart football player,” Petersen said. “I think that’s one of his best qualities. He’s just really smart. And that shows up. He knows how to get open and obviously has really talented hands.”
Fuller’s latest acrobatic grab came against Colorado, when he reached over his head to make a leaping, one-handed catch that picked up 11 yards for UW. Asked about the reception after the game, Fuller thought he could’ve done better.
“I mean, it was a good catch,” he said. “I got a little lazy on that and only put up one hand where I probably should have turned and used two.”
Fuller has been quarterback Jake Browning’s most reliable target this season. The loss of Dante Pettis meant UW had a substantial hole to fill in the offense, but the Huskies have developed a reliable group of receivers to help fill it.
Led by Fuller, the Huskies’ receivers have done it by committee. Ty Jones has 20 catches for 359 yards and five touchdowns. Andre Baccellia has 20 catches for 229 yards. Quinten Pounds, now out for the season with a knee injury, finished his year with eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown.
“I think Jake always goes with the ball where his read takes him,” Petersen said. “If all things are equal, maybe he is going to put one up there (for Fuller). I know Jake’s going to go where the read takes him.
“I think he trusts (all) those guys. But I don’t think he has any problem, if all things are equal, throwing to Aaron.”
With the injury to Pounds, Fuller said it’ll be up to some of the young receivers to come in and make plays. Overall, he said the group has become more detail-oriented throughout the season.
“I think a lot of us progressed in terms of learning the playbook and just confidence in each other and in ourselves as well,” he said. “We have some younger guys coming along. … It’s just about confidence and coming in to make plays.”
“I think just a lot of experience and being able to make plays in games just gives you more and more confidence.”
Fuller, a junior, has had years to get comfortable in the offense — he was UW’s third-leading receiver in 2017 — but he remembers what is was like working to build chemistry with Browning. While the younger receivers had time during spring ball and training camp to work with Browning, it’s a little different come game time.
“They haven’t played too much,” Fuller said. “For most of them, it’s their first year. So there’s a curve to get around, but it’s not too bad.”
Browning makes younger receivers feel comfortable, Fuller said, just by going through his reads quickly and so well. When receivers are open, Browning is going to find them and get them the ball.
“I think just spending enough time together, just throwing a lot if routes and getting good timing,” Browning said of bringing along receivers. “And then just being around each other enough helps a lot.”
Most of the chemistry, Browning said, was built during the reps he took with the receivers in the offseason. Once the season is underway, it’s all about confidence. It’s one thing to have the potential, he said, it’s another to actually have to make the plays in the game.
But Fuller and the rest of the receivers have stepped up in those big moments. There have been any number of highlight reel receptions, like Jones’ diving, tumbling touchdown catch against Arizona State.
Later in that same game, Baccellia made a reception along the sideline and somehow kept a foot inbounds. That kept UW’s final drive alive and allowed it to run down the clock. Before his injury, Pounds made a diving, one-handed touchdown grab against Auburn that’s remains one of the better catches from a Husky this season.
“I think getting a lot of experience and a lot of confidence for guy’s like Ty,” Browning said. “Aaron’s played for a while. But Ty, Andre, guys that have played for a while but not necessarily taken on that bigger role, it’s just getting confidence in that role.”
And Browning has seen the difference as the season’s progressed.
“I think they’re playing pretty confident,” Browning said, “and they know what they’re doing.”
Players always want to put in extra work with the quarterback heading into the season, Fuller said. Browning is focused on adjusting receivers’ speed and how they run routes. On the other side, younger receivers have to grow accustomed to Browning’s arm.
“It’s not more work,” Fuller said. “It’s just getting adjusted to that connection.”
Looking back on his earlier years with the team, Fuller is thankful that Pettis and Browning took the time to help him understand the playbook and how to run routes. They were there to guide him, and now he’s trying to pay it forward.
“That was something that was kind of pushed on me by the coaches and I pushed myself on as far as leadership, progressing those younger guys along as well while I work out,” he said. “There’s that leadership to get those connected.”