Don't sleep on quiet leadership of Notre Dame CB Julian Love

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Julian Love may sleep at halftime, but don’t sleep on Julian Love.

Tim Racki found that out during a game in 2014, when Nazareth Academy’s head football coach walked into the locker room and found his star junior submerged in a peaceful slumber.

“Right when I got in I saw Julian with his head up against the wall and his eyes closed, and I swear to God, he was sleeping,” Racki recalled on Tuesday. “I go over to one of the linemen. I go, ‘What the hell’s wrong with J-Love?’ He says, ‘Oh, he always takes a nap during halftime. You didn’t know that?’”

No, Racki didn’t know that. What kind of kid mercilessly shreds secondaries as a running back, hounds overwhelmed ball carriers as a cornerback, linebacker and safety, then catches some shut-eye between periods? Who in his right mind would voluntarily collide with padded opponents for 60 minutes, and sandwich a power nap in between?

“He was like, ‘Yeah coach, I get myself so amped up, I just have to get my mind right and relax and recharge my battery,’” Racki said with a laugh. “That’s so him. He’s not a rah-rah guy.”

In between naps, Love — now a 5-foot-11, 190-pound freshman defensive back at Notre Dame — racked up 92 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in his senior season in 2015. On the offensive side, he rushed for 1,067 yards and 18 touchdowns, averaging 10.3 yards per carry, and added 29 catches for 662 yards (22.8 yards per catch) and seven scores.

More importantly, he helped lead Nazareth Academy to state titles in 2014 and 2015, the first state championships in the history of the school. He didn’t get there by screaming and yelling, either.

He got there with a steely — not sleepy — calm.

“That poise he had was very attractive,” Racki said. “It was an incredible leadership trait.

“He’s always been mature beyond his years.”

***

One play.

Ninety-nine yards.

And that was just the beginning.

In the Illinois Class 5-A state semifinal game on Nov. 21, 2015, Love took the first handoff from scrimmage and sped through relentless sheets of blowing snow. He reached the end zone 99 yards later, the senior’s first touchdown in a four-score, 11-carry, 281-yard symphony.

Nazareth Academy defeated St. Laurence 34-0 to reach the state title game for the second consecutive season.

The game was practically played inside a snow globe, but that didn’t slow down Julian Love.

“It was a blizzard that day,” Racki said. “That’s when I really appreciated how special he was, because you had all these kids playing in a snowstorm, and he was the only kid that looked like he was playing on a dry track.

“I got used to seeing the kid make such big plays that you kind of take it for granted as a coach. But in that blizzard game, when you saw 21 guys slipping and sliding and struggling to keep their feet and you see this kid just gliding like he’s not even touching the snow, scoring touchdowns, that’s when you just shake your head and go, ‘Man, this is a once-in-a-lifetime type of player.’”

***

Saturday’s forecast in South Bend calls for a low of 27 degrees and a chance of — you guessed it — snow.

Don’t expect that to bother Love, who has piled up 32 tackles and an interception in his first season on the collegiate level. As Notre Dame celebrates Senior Day with its home finale against Virginia Tech, Love could be one of five true freshmen to play significant reps in the defensive backfield.

And while Love looks up to the upperclassmen, his fellow freshmen look up to him.

“When you talk about freshmen playing, you worry about the mental more so than the physical,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “But he has a great sense of the game, whether it be (defending the) option or the traditional offenses that we see. His maturity, the way he handles himself is well beyond being an 18, 19-year-old.

“When you talk about leadership as a freshman, it's how he handles himself both on and off the field. People will follow him, and they'll follow him because they respect him. He's not afraid to get on his teammates if they're not doing the right thing.”

That wasn’t a role Love sought or embraced when he arrived on campus this summer. He had to prove himself as a player before he could assert himself as a freshman leader.

“These last two weeks, I feel like I gained a lot of respect,” said Love, who made eight tackles against Navy as a cornerback, then slid to safety and made three more tackles with an interception against Army.

“I’m happy that I could show (my teammates) what I have to offer. That’s huge going forward. With all the freshmen, too, we’re making plays. We’re just in this together. We’re showing the team, the coaches, everyone, the world, that we can play.”

Love has shown that he can play, and because of that, he’s starting to lead.

Just don’t expect many inspirational halftime speeches.

“He was just copping some Z’s for 10 minutes,” Racki said with a laugh, marveling at Love’s ability to dominate, then doze during that game in 2014. “He had just scored. He just ripped off all these big runs and was making these tackles. I think he had a pick.

“He just had a monster half, and he’s in there taking a quick cat nap before he goes out and kills it again.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Julian Love (27) tackles Navy’s Brady Petersen during the Notre Dame vs. Navy NCAA college football game at EverBank field in Jacksonville, Florida Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA