It’s the short side of the field where Virginia Tech cornerbacks have made their money. They call it the boundary. When the ball is on either hash, the cornerback will line up in the boundary and cover from there. There’s not much of this in the NFL because the ball is always positioned in the middle of the field, but for the Hokies, it speaks to a cornerback’s quality. In Kyle Fuller’s case, there’s been plenty of speaking prior to the 2014 NFL Draft.
Before leaving to train for the NFL, Fuller played his final college season on the boundary. He was frequently in isolated man coverage against all sorts of wide receivers. He had to play press and off-man in the defense’s Quarters scheme, contest passes thrown in his direction on his own, and ensure that he wasn’t beaten over the top.
One false step and he was burned.
One wrong turn of the hips and he was toast.
If he did receive help, it was because a slot receiver didn’t threaten the safety vertically, allowing him to help Fuller over the top. But he couldn’t count on that like he would in Cover 2 — not always, at least.
Keeping that in mind while studying Fuller’s game, it’s noteworthy how frequently he was around passes. Even in off coverage, when cornerbacks typically sit back and let receivers pick up small gains in trade for a long one, he was forcing pass breakups.
His short area quickness, or plant-and-drive as it’s frequently called in scouting circles, was a big reason why. His ball skills are up there with Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard, a fellow Quarters coverman and likely first rounder. And his hip fluidity is smooth enough for the next level, as seen when he’s mirroring receivers when their routes break.
Midway through the crowd roaring second quarter in a 21-7 game against Alabama this past season, the ball was positioned on the left hash. Fuller took to his usual spot, the boundary, to the left of the ball. Across from him was wide receiver DeAndrew White. Shaded inside, Fuller didn’t have an eye on White, instead watching the tight end shift into the backfield and out. He widened his arms from his sides while communicating with the deep safeties, together debating if they should make a change to the coverage.
He brought his left leg over and turned inside to White as the play began, waiting for the receiver to complete his vertical stem before deciding if or when he should break on the anticipated throw. He was eight yards away.
As White slid his stem inside then out again, Fuller shifted as well but maintained his inside position. But when White planted his inside foot and turned his head to the middle of the field, Fuller stuck his right foot in the ground and opened his hips up, then using his right arm to gain inside position and undercut the route to intercept the throw.
“I’m going to tell you what, Kyle Fuller ran a better route than the intended receiver,” the in-booth analyst said following the play. (2:30)
Fuller has a chance to be better than he already is; all prospects do, it’s just a matter of how much. In his case, a lot, and that’s when considering how well coached and fundamentally sound of a player he already is.
Where he has room for improvement is channeling his aggression. Like every other young cornerback, he’s always looking to make a play, and while that’s good, it can quickly turn into bad for him because he’s essentially on an island.
He needs to be technically sound and disciplined throughout a play to avoid giving up big gains. He can’t slide too much at the line, bite hard on a double-move, open his hips up too early, or look into the backfield while he’s covering a receiver downfield with his back turned to the quarterback. These are all mistakes that are going to happen to him in the future like they have during his time with the Hokies, but if he’s going to have more success he’ll need to cut down on them.
Exhibit A: the ball is in the middle of the field. Fuller’s just a cornerback now, no boundary or field label because of the equidistant halves. He’s on the right and outside and expected to cover the first receiver from the sideline in.
Before the snap, he cuts down his seven-yard cushion to press-man position with quick choppy steps. The Hokies are playing Cover 1, meaning he has safety help from the middle of the field, but he still must stay in front of the receiver.
He bounces a step back when the play begins. His upper body hovers over his feet, and his eyes are fixated on the receiver. He’s slightly shaded outside. The receiver stems his route forward, then inside like he’s running a dig route. Trailing, Fuller tries to catch-up and comes over the anticipated dig route aggressively. But at the 31-yard line, the receiver sinks his hips and pivots outside. He’s now running free on top of the numbers. Fuller, meanwhile, is folded like a lawn chair, completely out of position to make a play.
The ball is thrown. Fuller’s two yards away from the receiver. Safety help is late. The ball sails over their heads incomplete. In the NFL, it’s a catch and more. (1:35)
What Fuller’s career will boil down to is his study habits. He has the physical talent to matchup with any kind of wide receiver an NFL offense wants to throw at him, but he has to do it mentally too.
Recognizing wide receiver splits is vital. Are they inside or outside the numbers? If outside, he should expect an in-breaking route more often than not.
Their releases are also important. If they’re going to be running a vertical route, will they be jabbing inside at the start to create room down the sideline? It’s possible.
When they’re breaking off their routes is another thing. If they’re trying to break a route earlier than 12-15 yards and it’s not a quick dropback, should he expect a double move? Yes, he should.
If Fuller’s going to be a star in the NFL, he’ll have to study hard and stay within the boundary of his responsibilities.