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Redskins Remain Confident With Rookie Kendall Fuller

Posted Dec 3, 2016

The rookie nickel cornerback has experienced his share of struggles this season, but coaches believe in his talent and that he will continue to grow during the stretch run.

The rookie nickel cornerback has experienced his share of struggles this season, but coaches believe in his talent and that he will continue to grow during the stretch run.

It hasn’t been an easy several weeks for rookie cornerback Kendall Fuller.

When he got his first opportunity to start at the nickel cornerback position in Week 4, filling in for an injured Dashaun Phillips, Fuller exhibited good coverage and tackling skills, enough that coaches felt he could handle the rigors of a position many feel is the most challenging to play in the secondary.

But lately, Fuller has been struggling to keep up with the league’s most dangerous receivers, which have all lined up more in the slot as a way to escape the coverage of cornerback Josh Norman.

Over the last month, Fuller has matched up with Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs, Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb and Dallas’ Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant, some of the best in the game. They have each presented different kinds of challenges for Fuller, who has been picked on by opposing quarterbacks.

“This is the National Football League, technique has got to be on point,” Fuller said. “Just got to get out there and compete.”

In the Redskins’ victory over Minnesota, Diggs recorded a season-high 13 catches for 164 yards, the majority of which came against Fuller in the slot. Against the Packers, Nelson and Cobb combined for more than 100 yards while Bryant and Cole Beasley each had more success with big plays lining up in the slot.

With the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald looming this Sunday, Fuller knows his work will continue to be cut out for him. But he’s not backing down.

“Especially after last week, they’re definitely going to come after me, that’s what you want as a corner,” Fuller said. “You want to be able to make some plays, and I just got to be able to execute and make the plays.”

That’s one thing that head coach Jay Gruden  has stressed recently, acknowledging that Fuller has been in good position to make plays but needs to finish them.

“I think as a young football player, he’s growing," Gruden said. "And he’s not going to be perfect, nor is anyone on our football team, but I like the ways he plays. He plays with great effort. He’s a smart football player. He has just got to continue to work on his technique and I think that’ll come with time. Whether it’s outside leverage, inside leverage, off technique, whatever it is, zone technique, all that stuff is just repetition, repetition, repetition. The more he gets, the better he is going to be.”

The last time Fuller played the nickel cornerback position was as a freshman at Virginia Tech. He moved outside for the next two years, and while microfracture knee surgery last season soured teams from making him a first round draft pick, the Redskins saw a lot of promise in his talent.

The third rounder has played the most snaps of any Redskins rookie this season, an indication that coaches believe he has the tools, in both the short term and long term, to be an impact player.

“I think Kendall Fuller is going to be a special player in this league for a long time,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. “His maturity, his instincts, his awareness have been really, really impressive for a rookie. So I think he’s had some ups and downs like all of us, but I expect big football from him in the future, no doubt.”

The Redskins promoted Dashaun Phillips, who began the season as the nickel cornerback, from the practice squad for Sunday’s game, and it remains to be seen what kind of role he will have mixed in with Fuller. Phillips, who put on weight this offseason to help him at the position, which can often require a hybrid of safety, corner and linebacking skills, knows how challenging the position can be.

“Knowing where your help is at, knowing where you’re at on the field, knowing what routes can beat you…you’ve just got to react quick in that nickel spot,” Phillips said. “[Receivers] have two-way goes.  He can go outside and inside, but there’s so much field.”

Barry has been an advocate for young players to learn on the fly, to get better by experiencing real game situations and learning from their in-the-moment decisions. The position doesn’t lend itself to everyone.

“It’s all-encompassing when you play that nickel corner position,” Barry said. “You have got to be able to play man, you have got to be able to play zone, you have got to be able to play run, you have got to be able to play pass, you have got to be a blitzer – so there’s a few more hats you have to wear when you play the nickel corner position. Again, with Kendall, that’s why I think that you can’t just throw any random corner in to play the nickel corner position. It has to be a guy that’s kind of cerebral, that understands, that has instincts, that has awareness – and those are the things that are exciting about Kendall because he possesses those things.”

The Redskins know this final five-game stretch will be crucial to their chances at the postseason, and so they will continue to rely on those that have helped get them there.

“At the end of the day, I think I’m always putting myself in a good position to make a play,” Fuller said. “It’s just getting over that hump and actually making a play.”

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