There’s one play that always has stood out to Torrian Gray when he thinks back to his time coaching cornerback Kendall Fuller in 2017. It was Week 9, and Washington, coming off a pair of division losses to the Cowboys and Eagles, traveled to Seattle as an underdog against the Seahawks.
On a third and four near midfield, Fuller lined up in the nickel and anticipated the play Seattle ran: a double slant, with the ball coming inside to wide receiver Doug Baldwin. As soon as Russell Wilson dropped back to pass, Fuller switched gears, planted hard on his back foot, jumped the route and made the interception while colliding with Baldwin.
“That was difficult as hell,” Gray said. “He's probably the only guy in the league that makes that play because you have to anticipate it coming and then actually go in there and finish the play. That's a whole other level of execution.”
Gray, the former defensive backs coach at Virginia Tech and later in Washington (2017-18), is the man Fuller has credited for helping him become one of the most versatile defensive backs in the NFL. He can play the nickel. He can play corner. He can play free safety, too, and even drop down in the box if needed.
But after years of moving around, virtually positionless in the defensive backfield, the versatile Fuller has become Washington’s top playmaker at the spot he hoped to play all along: cornerback.
Through Week 6, Fuller is tied with Miami’s Xavien Howard for the league lead in interceptions with four — a number that also matches Fuller’s career high.
“It’s nothing that I’m surprised at,” said Chris Harris, Washington’s defensive backs coach. “I thought he was a really good player when we got him. He can play anywhere. He’s really a jack-of-all-trades. He can play any position in the secondary, but he’s really thriving at playing on the outside.”
‘A little up in the air’
In 2013, when Fuller arrived at Virginia Tech after an All-Met career at Washington Catholic Athletic Conference power Good Counsel in Olney, Md., his hope was to play outside at corner. Gray told him that the quickest way for him to get on the field was to move inside and play nickel. He started 12 of 13 games and recorded six interceptions that season.
“ ‘Eventually, you’ll play corner,’ ” Gray recalled telling him at the time. “ ‘But the more positions you can play and the more versatility you have, it’s going to help you moving forward — here at Virginia Tech and even on to the next level.’ ”
After Washington selected him in the third round in 2016, Fuller played the bulk of his first two years in the slot, recording four interceptions in 2017. He was traded after that season, along with a third-round pick, to Kansas City for quarterback Alex Smith.
The Chiefs kept him in the slot his first season after the trade. Last year, while playing mostly in reserve for the Chiefs, Fuller played half of his defensive snaps at the nickel spot and split the others at cornerback and safety, according to Pro Football Focus.
When Fuller, 25, became a free agent in March, his ability to play every position in the secondary was among the biggest reasons Washington sought to bring him back. Fuller’s $40 million contract offered no promises of a specific position.
“It was a little up in the air,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “ ... We kind of figured we’d take a look at what we have, see how it all kind of meshes and go from there. Having him at outside corner gives us a very savvy guy. When you put him at the nickel position, you have a guy that has potential to play inside and be quick with those guys, and then when you put him at safety you have a guy who’s basically a ballhawk type of player.”
But while Fuller has moved around occasionally (he even played a few snaps at safety last Sunday against the Giants), he has played 83 percent of his snaps at corner — where all four of his interceptions have come.
“It’s not too difficult. Once you learn the defense, learn everyone’s position, you just kind of go out there and play,” Fuller said. “You don’t just pay attention to your position so it’s not like once you get to game week you have to learn different roles. You’ve been learning it since OTAs, training camp, things like that. Some plays you might be looking at it as if you’re at corner, some plays you look at it if you’re at safety, but you’re not learning a whole new position on the fly.”
But simply learning the positions doesn’t make you capable of playing them all.
“You've got to have the mental capacity and the physical abilities to do it,” Gray said. “It’s easier said than done. Corner and nickel are kind of alike. To be able to play safety, you've got to have more of a certain physicality to you, and you've got to be able to communicate. You've got to have a lot of intangibles to be a versatile player on the back end, and that says a lot about Kendall and his abilities, his maturation and all that it takes to do the things he's done.
“His mental progression to be able to take information and apply it right away was the thing that always stood out to me about Kendall. For him to know, ‘Okay, this is where my eyes go, this is my key,’ — for him to be able to apply that so quickly always amazed me about him.”
While heeding Gray’s advice to learn every position, Fuller bolstered his performance with film study, another point of emphasis for Gray. A former safety who played at Virginia Tech before the Vikings took him in the second round of the 1997 draft, Gray said he has long stressed the finer points of game preparation and how to study film.
‘The work never stops’
In his two years in Kansas City, Fuller won a Super Bowl — sealing the win over San Francisco with an interception of Jimmy Garoppolo in the final minutes — and acquired more lessons on game prep that he brought with him to Washington.
“One of the main things I picked up from Kansas City is just when you’re in the building, the work never stops,” he said during the offseason. “They always had us doing walk-throughs a little bit earlier before practice. If we got out there five or 10 minutes early, getting out there just to get more reps. If you’re in a period and you’re not doing anything, instead of just sitting on the sidelines, let’s get up and do something even if it’s just playing catch, little ball drills and things like that. That was probably the biggest thing that stood out to me. If we were on the field, there wasn’t any sitting around. We were working at all times.”
That work ethic and approach are attributes Rivera wants to instill in his entire roster, along with situational awareness learned from years on the job.
For Fuller, his years of roaming might have made him the corner he always wanted to be.
“He has a greater understanding from playing nickel and safety,” Gray said. “So now that he’s playing corner, it’s just having a whole awareness of what the defense is doing. Obviously he’s going to understand the position that he’s playing, but just having the awareness of what the other guys are doing and what they’re supposed to be doing.”
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