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Making his mark: Corey Fuller showing drastic improvement

Posted Sep 16, 2014

Second-year receiver Corey Fuller was a practice squad player in 2013. This year, he’s on the verge of making significant contributions for the Lions. It hasn’t happened by accident, either.

It’s April 27, 2013, and Corey Fuller anxiously awaits his phone to ring. If it rings. It’s the third and final day of the NFL Draft and all Fuller wants is a chance, an opportunity to play football at the highest level.

His phone lights up and the Lions are on the other end of the line. They’re using their sixth-round pick (171st overall) to draft him. While a roster spot is far from guaranteed, he’ll at least be able to showcase his talents in camp and hopefully make a positive impression.

Just over 16 months later, Fuller is again waiting by his phone. But this time, he doesn’t want it to ring. It’s final cut day, and each NFL team must trim its roster to 53 players before the regular season starts. A call from the Lions would only mean one thing: that he would be released.

Fortunately for Fuller, his phone remains silent.

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Corey FullerWR Corey Fuller (Photo: Detroit Lions)

The 6-foot-2, 200 pound receiver spent last year – his first NFL season – on the Lions’ practice squad. Fuller practiced with the team every day, but he wasn’t part of Detroit’s 53-man roster so he didn’t travel for road games.

It was a challenging position to be in. During the week, Fuller was on the team, but on Sunday, he wasn’t.

The 24-year-old had made it to the NFL. He was playing professional football, but he was not a polished wide receiver. Fuller was fast, but needed to improve his route running, getting open and catching the football. Speed alone wouldn’t be enough to make the 53.

So Fuller spent 2013 on the practice squad, soaking up as much knowledge about the position as he could, learning from experienced receivers like Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson.

“I focused on how they practiced and how they went through their week-to-week routines,” Fuller said. “I learned what it takes to be a pro: taking care of your body, getting treatment, coming in early and leaving late.”

During the offseason, he rededicated himself to his craft, working on becoming more of a complete player.

“I just worked on everything,” Fuller said. “Speed, lifting, catching the ball, routes, all that stuff.”

He didn’t want to simply be known as a practice squad player any longer. His first goal for 2014 was simple. Make the final roster.

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Fuller played quarterback at Woodlawn High School in Maryland, but he was more effective on the track than on the field. He was a Nike All-American as a senior and earned first team all-state honors during both the indoor and outdoor seasons.

Corey FullerWR Corey Fuller (Photo: Gavin Smith)

Coming out of high school, Fuller didn’t have any offers to play football in college. But multiple programs were interested in him for track. In 2008, he decided to enroll at the University of Kansas on scholarship and competed in the 100 meters, triple jump and long jump.

Fuller had successful freshmen and sophomore seasons on the track at Kansas, but there was always a part of him that still yearned to play football. He wanted to play for the Jayhawks, although his best opportunity came at Virginia Tech. The Hokies had just recruited Fuller’s younger brother, Kyle, and the coaches started asking about Corey.

Eager to get back on the field, Fuller was intrigued. His older brother, Vincent, had played safety at Virginia Tech. Kyle would be enrolling, and eventually so would his youngest brother, Kendall.

The coaching staff told Fuller they would give him an opportunity to come in and play as a walk-on.

“So that’s what I did,” he said. 

Fuller sat out the 2010 season, per NCAA transfer rules, and played two seasons at Virginia Tech. He became a full-time starter in 2012, notching 43 receptions for 815 yards and six touchdowns.

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The Maryland native had a productive senior season, but there was no assurance he would be drafted. At the NFL combine in February of 2013, Fuller put his track speed on display, running the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds, tied for 7th fastest among receivers. Despite the impressive time, he wasn’t completely satisfied. In college, he was once clocked at 4.33.

But speed wasn’t Fuller’s only attribute. Among wide receivers, his arms were the fifth-longest (33.28”) and his hands were the 11th-largest (9.48”).

Two months later, the Lions selected Fuller in the sixth round with the 171st overall pick.

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Entering his second season as a pro, Fuller made the most out of his opportunities in training camp. He was sharper with his routes, he was better at creating space from his defender and he rarely let a pass hit the ground.

Corey FullerWR Corey Fuller (Photo: AP Images)

In four preseason games, Fuller tallied six catches for 90 yards and two scores, including a 21-yard game-winning touchdown against Cleveland and a 25-yard touchdown against Buffalo.

He had significantly improved from the year before and had exceeded expectations in camp.

“I think it was quite evident, the guy made plays,” head coach Jim Caldwell said of Fuller. “He’s growing and developing. He’s got speed, he’s got length and he’s hungry.”

But the receiver didn’t know if his preseason performance was enough. The Lions would likely keep six receivers and one of the final spots on the 53-man roster would come down to Fuller and Kris Durham, a guy who was second on the team in targets in 2013.

Cut day arrived, and all he could do was wait. He thought about the preseason and how he could have done a lot of things a little bit better. His future was no longer in his control.

“As much as I tried not to think about it, I still thought about it,” Fuller said.

So Fuller put his phone on ‘do not disturb’ and tried to fill his day with activities that could keep his mind from wandering. He went to the mall. He went out to eat. He spent a lot of time with family and friends. 

“I was just trying not to be around my phone too much,” he said. “I was hoping I didn’t get a phone call.”

The 4 p.m. deadline came and went. His phone stayed dark. Fuller logged onto Twitter to confirm the news. Lions beat writers had tweeted final cuts and Fuller had made it.

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Fuller had accomplished his first goal of the season. His next goal was to make it on the active list for the game, meaning he would be in uniform and likely see some snaps.

Corey FullerWR Corey Fuller (Photo: Gavin Smith)

He accomplished that, too. He’s been on the active roster for both games this season, seeing the field for a combined 27 snaps. He was targeted for the first time last week versus the Panthers, but did not record a reception.

Next on Fuller’s list is to make tangible contributions during a game. His biggest asset is his speed, as he has the ability to stretch the field and get behind the defense.

He also wants to play against Kyle.

Corey and his brother, a cornerback selected in the first round by the Chicago Bears in May, are only 18 months apart and they confide in each other through good times and bad. Kyle was the first person Corey called when he found out he had made the team.

“We are kind of going through the same things at the same times,” Fuller said. “We are just learning from each other and helping each other as we go. We talk every day, just about any and everything. It keeps use close.”

The brothers could literally be close on the field twice this season. If all goes according to plan, they could be lined up against each other on the NFL stage.

“I can’t wait,” Fuller said. “I don’t know if he would try to take a cheap shot on me or crack jokes, but it’ll be fun.”

But Fuller won’t get ahead of himself. His approach is day-by-day. If he continues to improve and stays mentally sound when he’s on the field, opportunities will come and he will be primed to take advantage of them.

“I’ll be ready,” Fuller said. “I still have more work to do.”