Last summer, the Stanford Cardinal were headed into the 2016 season with running back Christian McCaffrey coming off of a season that should have won him the Heisman Trophy after he broke Barry Sanders’ total yards record. While there were plenty of players to get excited about around college football, including McCaffrey and Solomon Thomas on the Stanford roster, I was hyped for two players: Bryce Love and Bo Scarbrough.
The hype behind Scarbrough was a fairly popular train to get on since he was a huge running back with speed and set to take over for Derrick Henry. But Love was the back behind the stud McCaffrey, what could he bring to the table that McCaffrey did not?
McCaffrey was, and still is, an amazing hybrid player. The offensive weapon that can be plugged all over the place and can be relied on to make plays. While he was a good outside receiver, slot receiver, running back and return man what he was not necessarily a pure running back. From his first carry, I saw Love as the Cardinal’s pure running back, one that would churn out yards and play exceptionally at his spot. Here is maybe a better way to think of it. Connor McGregor is an exceptional MMA fighter, with multiple belts in a dominant career. He is also a great boxer, with solid striking and possesses a good stand-up game. However, Floyd Mayweather is a truly elite boxer, with a now 50-0 record. McGregor can do a lot of things really well, but Mayweather is an out of this world boxer. McCaffrey can do a lot of things really well, but when it comes to pounding the ball on the ground and grinding between the tackles, Love is the man.
He would not necessarily be an elite X receiver, but he was going to hit the hole hard and fast, streaking down the field with an exceptional explosiveness that punished subpar open field tackling and bad angles of pursuit. His powerful frame, perhaps deceptively so, made things all the more difficult for defenders to contain love.
First Sight -
November 7, 2015, Stanford was playing the Colorado Buffaloes. On a mere three carries, Love went for 58 yards and a touchdown. He was explosive, shifty in space and a change of pace that could capitalize on a defense that spent all week preparing for McCaffrey. There it was, the moment when you saw the real flash of what the future held. But it has also alluded to the future of Love. In the game, he had a 47-yard run. Two weeks later he had a 48-yard burst, in 2016 he had five runs of 30 or more yards an three of more than 50. Not only can he grind out a third and short, he can also explode for a big gain, outpacing defenders in open space.
He ran with confidence and authority. Of course, it was only three carries, and easy (for some) to overlook the potential as Buffs defense was already worked by McCaffrey (McCaffrey rushed for 147 yards and had passing touchdown). But that potential was there all the same.
The Love -
The 2016 season rolled around and I published plenty of articles advocating that the backfield should be packed with two running back sets to put defenses in fits. The first few games gave him next to nothing, with 22 carries in five games. There was not much light for Love to work towards, then McCaffrey went down with an injury and the spotlight (and pressure) was on Love as he would have the bulk of the workload. He responded with 129 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame. His perfect mix of burst and power, combined with the shiftiness he showcased in the kick return game was put on the stage and he performed wonderfully.
McCaffrey eventually returned and while Love had solid production, getting over 70 yards in three of the next four games, Love had proven he was ready for the full workload. In the last game of the season, Love batted cleanup against Rice, rushing for 111 yards and a score on just seven carries. Then against North Carolina in the Sun Bowl, he once again stepped into the starting role for 164 yards from scrimmage and two scores. He proved he was an every-down back.
Right Here, Right Now -
In the first three games of 2017, Love had already amassed 524 yards and four touchdowns. While the offense around him has looked progressively weaker over the last two weeks, Love has stayed a song centerpiece a spark of consistency. In the first three games, he has rushed for 180, 160 and 184 yards. With longs of 62, 75, and 53 yards in each game. He is a back that can grind out yards, with home run speed.
On Saturday against the UCLA Bruins Love exploded for 263 yards and a touchdown on 30 touches. Love probably benefited greatly from K.J. Costello entering the game and providing the Stanford Cardinal with an actual passing attack.
Love has gone from my favorite running back prospect to the underrated second man, to one of the best backs in college football. I have never doubted him and love watching him play. This season, he is the best reason to watch Stanford football and it is crazy to think about what he could accomplish if the Stanford offense continues with the passing success they found Saturday night with Costello meaning the Cardinal will not be one dimensional and Love will not have to constantly run into the teeth of a loaded box.