When you're in the same backfield as lightning-quick Christian McCaffrey, it's hard to truly be a change-of-pace back. It takes a special kind of speed — track speed, in fact — to prove it to not be a misnomer.
Last season, true freshman Bryce Love broke onto the scene and established himself as Stanford's change-of-pace back before "regular" students had even arrived on campus. Love, not McCaffrey, woke Stanford's offense from its early season slumber with an electric performance against UCF, touching the ball just three times while totaling 143 total yards.
He finished the season as a versatile McCaffrey Lite, racking up 226 rushing yards and 250 receiving yards on just 44 touches. He was "spoon-fed" as head coach David Shaw likes to say, used as a decoy for McCaffrey and sometimes taking the ball as the primary back.
Now, Love could be poised to take the next step this season and take on a much larger role alongside McCaffrey, especially since Barry J. Sanders has transferred to Oklahoma State. On top of that, after McCaffrey's explosive success, Shaw has proven that a smaller, quicker back can succeed -- and dominate -- in his system. Love is a prototypical speed back: agile, explosive, and versatile, with all the skills to carve up Pac-12 defenses on a regular basis.
"He's a special, special football player," Shaw said after Love's 11-carry, 48-yard performance in the Spring Game. "I'm excited for when we have both [Love] and [McCaffrey] on the field at the same time. One guy could play receiver while the other plays running back, they could both be in the backfield at the same time, or they could both be flexed out at receiver and have Cameron Scarlett in the backfield because of the special things those guys can do."
Armed with better knowledge of the playbook, Love could give Shaw much more flexibility to rest McCaffrey or create an electric receiving corps. Last season, he wasn't "ready for the whole gameplan," so McCaffrey had to shoulder the bulk of the load (which turned out pretty well for him and the Cardinal).
The coaching staff rested McCaffrey in the Spring Game to limit his "mileage," and Shaw said he wants to limit McCaffrey's carries per game to somewhere in the 20 to 24 range, a mark he exceeded seven times last season. With that in mind, expect Love feature in an expanded role -- and thrive.
He could also end up returning kicks for the Cardinal, since Stanford doesn't want McCaffrey to return all of them. Stanford's special teams have been consistently dominant in the Shaw era, an underrated key to their success. With all the tools around him to succeed, Love could become the next kick return ace on The Farm, taking a lot of strain off McCaffrey's legs.
Stanford could need a Swiss Army knife player to replace McCaffrey as soon as next season, so it would behoove Shaw to groom Love as his successor with an expanded role this season. If his flashy showing in the Spring Game is any indication, he appears ready to take the next step and be a more consistent contributor to Stanford's offense.
Along with Cameron Scarlett as the presumptive goal line back, Love and McCaffrey could form a three-headed monster in the backfield -- an alarming proposition for the rest of the Pac-12.