Senior Spartan Jody Fuller overcame early miscues to excel
Sun Valley High School football coach Scott Stein loves to hear receiver Jody Fuller pleading his case on the sideline.
“I’ll hear him say, ‘I was open, I was open,’ but there were three people around him,” Stein said. “That’s who you have to be. You can’t ever think you’re guarded – that’s a good thing.”
It’s definitely helped the Spartans for the past three years as Fuller has become one of the state’s top recruiting targets at receiver. He’s got good size at 6 feet, 205 pounds. He runs the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds and has a 37.5-inch vertical leap, so he’s probably right – there are very few players who can, in fact, guard him.
But it’s the senior’s mind-set that has served him best and might help the Spartans right a ship that appeared headed for greatness but has recently gotten off course with a 3-4 record.
“I don’t think (Fuller) would believe that there was anybody that could shut him down, really,” said Stein. “He’s that kind of guy.”
Stein first heard about Fuller when the player was in sixth grade and lining up in Sun Valley Middle School’s backfield with current Spartan teammate JaDarrius Williams. Together, the tandem was nearly unstoppable at the middle school level. The trend continued in seventh grade, and the next season, Stein made a trip to watch the two prodigies.
“I talked with them about what kind of things I should see out of him in a football uniform,” Stein recalled.
Right away, Fuller could tell that matriculating to Sun Valley High School would challenge him in ways playing in middle school hadn’t. Fuller remembers a particular play where he bounced a designed up-the-middle run outside for a breakaway score. The celebration ended as soon as he got to the sideline.
“Why did you take that outside? Why’d you do that?” Stein asked Fuller.
“I was like, ‘Coach, we just scored a touchdown!’” Fuller recalled.
“No, you didn’t do it right,” Stein responded.
“I knew Jody could be a special athlete the first time I saw him play. He knows that,” Stein said. “But with great gifts come great responsibility.
“He knows now what I’m talking about, but anytime you’re (a successful middle school player) you’re usually bigger, faster or stronger than somebody else. It’s usually not because of great skills.
“At that level, everyone was kind of patting them on their backs because they had those skills. They needed somebody to put a foot in their behinds every once in a while.”
By the time Fuller reached his sophomore season, he was earning time on the varsity squad. But there were still lessons to be learned. For one, it took Fuller some time to learn how to work like a varsity player, especially in practice. There were times Fuller didn’t live up to his immense potential, and by the regular-season finale against Porter Ridge, Stein was determined to send a message.
“I told him going into that ballgame, ‘I’m not going to give you the ball. I may give you the ball to win the game, but I’m not going to give you the ball otherwise,’” Stein recalled.
Fuller played the entire game but served as a decoy on pass routes and a blocker during run plays.
With a minute to go in the game, the teams were tied at 14.
“Me, knowing his competitiveness, me knowing he could single-handedly win a ball game, I put him in and said, ‘OK, go be the hero,’” Stein said.
It was a risky move. Failing to make a play could’ve devastated the youngster’s confidence. Conversely, if he did make the play, it could’ve undermined the point Stein was trying to get across in the first place.
Fuller made the catch to win the game, 21-14.
“‘That is what you can do!’” Stein recalled telling Fuller after the play, adding that he said, “’How long are you going to stop me from letting you do it?’
“He really grew up from that,” Stein said.
The message was well-received.
“He kind of broke me, so at that point he made me grow up and made me what I am, and he brought me to where I could do what I do now,” Fuller said. “At the beginning (of my career), I was doing just what I wanted to do. (Stein) taught me discipline.”
It was a pivotal moment for both the coach and the player.
“I think with that he realized I wasn’t going to bend, that I wasn’t going to be OK with him not being great,” Stein said. “He’d be a great high school player and never have to work out. That’s not a problem.
“But real greatness comes in being competitive with yourself and doing the things you need to and being a great practice person.”
Fuller finished the year with 30 catches, cementing himself as a bona fide offensive weapon for the Spartans. Following the season, Fuller received his first scholarship offer, from the University of South Carolina.
The offer came as a surprise. Fuller didn’t think he had a strong enough season to warrant scholarship offers, not from a major program like South Carolina. Soon, more opportunities would follow, as Fuller became one of the top receiving targets in the nation. Schools such as Miami, Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Virginia Tech – among many others – all competed for his services.
During his junior year, Fuller justified the hype, catching 77 passes for 850 yards and 18 touchdowns. The production has continued. This season, the senior has 36 catches and five receiving scores. He’s also lined up in the backfield and added five rushing touchdowns while also spending time at free safety and kick returner.
Fuller is happy with the opportunities.
“Just beating people – making that long touchdown run and running though the whole defense and going for a touchdown; that’s probably my favorite part (of football),” said Fuller. “Just making the big plays. A chance for a long run or a kick return, stuff like that. Any way it comes, as a catch or a run.”
And now that he’s put in the time, Stein said Fuller is the kind of weapon that forces a coaching staff to invent ways of getting him the ball.
“I would say the biggest thing about Jody is he’s truly a game-breaker because he can run over you or around you,” Stein said. “That’s what he’s capable of doing each and every time the ball’s in his hands. It’s difficult to defend him.”
Fuller eventually committed to South Carolina and is expected to sign with the Gamecocks in February, when college football’s official signing period begins. But he’s still very aware of the lessons he’s learned from his current coach.
“I don’t know if I’d be here today if I just kept doing my own thing,” he said. “The fact that (Stein) pushed me and didn’t just throw me out there to play varsity my sophomore year and let me get (all the) catches I could’ve had and stuff like that, it paid off at the end to learn those lessons early rather than later.”
Those lessons should continue to pay off as the Spartans enter the final three regular-season games of Fuller’s career. With a 3-4 record, Sun Valley has an uphill climb to return to the postseason, but with conference games against Weddington (Friday, Oct. 14), Parkwood (Oct. 21) and Porter Ridge (Oct. 28), it will be helpful to have a weapon on the field who doesn’t believe he can be beaten.
“That’s important because before this year, we hadn’t lost a home game in two or three years,” Fuller said. “It’s important to carry on the tradition and let these (younger players) know, ‘We’ve lost some games, but the season is nowhere near over. This is just the beginning. We need to finish.”
Trust him – he knows firsthand.