The labor of Notre Dame CB Julian Love

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The play was called “Golden Domer” of all things, and it basically gave then-Nazareth Academy football standout Julian Love the freedom to line up wherever he wanted and sort of free-lance his way through the particular defensive snap.

Now a part of Notre Dame’s youth-saturated secondary, Love has to stay in his lane to a large extent. But the instincts and versatility he showed on Illinois high school state championship teams in 2014 and 2015 have helped him ascend into the Irish two-deeps that now count five freshmen among the eight top defensive back spots.

Cornerback Donte Vaughn and recently activated Troy Pride Jr., and safeties Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill join Love in the mass microwaving process in the ND secondary.

Overall, ND head coach Brian Kelly is playing 13 true freshmen, the most in his seven seasons at Notre Dame and the most by any Irish coach since Charlie Weis rolled out 18 in a 2006 season that ended with a BCS berth opposite LSU in the Sugar Bowl.

“I think for most young players, it's the learning process and retention,” Kelly said of the difference between playing and sitting early in a career. “I think early on it was pretty clear that (Love) was able to pick things up pretty easily and then go back out and retain it later.

“We knew his athletic ability was not going to be an issue for us. We felt like Julian showed in camp with his ability to pick things up, and that's when he got a lot more work at that position.”

The work continues for the 5-foot-11, 190-pound cornerback Saturday in Raleigh, N.C., where North Carolina State (3-1) is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Carter-Finley Field and the first-ever regular-season game with Notre Dame at that venue or anywhere else.

The Wolfpack in four contests already have matched the number of games exceeding 500 yards in total offense from last season (3), which is also how many they amassed in 2013 and 2014 combined. That’s largely thanks to some Boise State mojo.

Transfer quarterback Ryan Finley, who like ND’s DeShone Kizer started the season in a time share, is the nation’s fourth-most accurate passer (.724) and one of three FBS QBs with at least 100 pass attempts who has yet to get picked off.

He’s guided by former Boise State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, now in his first season at N.C. State. Notre Dame QBs coach/offensive coordinator Mike Sanford overlapped both Drinkwitz’s and Finley’s time in Boise before Sanford left the Broncos to come to ND.

Combined with players like senior running back Matt Dayes (22nd nationally in rushing and averaging 5.8 yards a carry) and do-it-all fullback/tight end/wide receiver Jaylen Samuels — first team All-ACC last season and third team All-America — the Wolfpack feature one of the most balanced and potent offenses the Irish will contend with this season.

For Love, that’s the kind of imposing star power he’ll face in his second career start after taking on another top 25 offense in Syracuse last Saturday in his first.

“I made a lot of mistakes, to be honest with you,” Love said of his rise that includes 12 tackles and a pass-breakup. “But I learned from them. I’ve tried not to make the same mistake twice.”

He’ll certainly be tested along those lines. N.C. State is one of three teams in the final seven regular-season games for ND (2-3) in which he and his fellow freshmen will see a passing offense ranked in the top 15 in efficiency. Miami and Virginia Tech are the others.

Two of the remaining four are triple-option curveballs Navy and Army. The surprisingly tepid offensive outliers are Christian McCaffrey and Stanford, and JuJu Smith-Schuster and USC. The Cardinal is 122nd in total offense out of 128 in the FBS, USC 85th.

“I like their focus on wanting to be coached and get better as a football team,” Kelly said of a unit whose biggest improvement in week 1 of life after Brian VanGorder was third-down defense (3-of-15, 20 percent in the 50-33 mauling of Syracuse last Saturday).

“We’re pretty boring right now. It’s boring stuff. We’re working on stuff that you’d rather watch paint dry. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re going to get better each week, I know that.”

Kelly’s restructuring of the 106th-ranked Notre Dame defense, since he fired third-year coordinator VanGorder on Sept. 25, goes well beyond elevating analyst Greg Hudson to the title of defensive coordinator and simplifying VanGorder’s scheme.

The players, for instance, meet by position group much more often now, than as a defense as a whole.

“Just been my philosophy that I believe that the best teaching can be done in their groups,” Kelly said. “And I think I’ve got very good teachers, and I want them to be able to have their own room where they can really drill down and specific techniques. I think that’s best done within their position groups.”

Linebackers coach Mike Elston, who also happens to be ND’s recruiting coordinator, is an important conduit connecting Kelly’s revised philosophy and Hudson’s leadership. In fact, Elston and Hudson are collaborating on defensive calls, with Elston up in the coaching booth and Hudson on the sidelines.

“Mike is very bright and he’s got a great understanding of the defense,” Kelly said. “We’re really trying to meld philosophically what I want.

“And he’s able to pull that kind of out of the inventory. And Greg and him are able to work together and bring that inventory into how I want the defense to be run.”

How that translates to Love and the other freshmen trying to establish themselves is a scheme and atmosphere with more energy and more fun. And Kelly is banking that it will eventually evolve into more proficiency as well.

“I think our confidence is growing each day,” he said of the freshman group. “At first we were definitely a bit nervous. But now when we step out on the field we feel natural, and it's something we've all worked for and we're building off of each other. I’m building off D-Vaughn. He's building off me. I think that's a special thing.

”“I know I can’t just think things are going to skyrocket just because I’m playing more. I think I have to put in a lot of work each day to make it happen.'

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Julian Love (27) tries to tackle Duke’s T.J. Rahming (3) during the Notre Dame-Duke NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA