Tough Love: Sophomore CB trying to help Notre Dame defense turn the corner

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The groundwork was laid long before the moment Julian Love seemingly went from quasi-afterthought to a player with a clear and burgeoning future.

His opportunity to accelerate into an ascending player came during the last week of September in 2016, in the turbulent days that followed the in-season purging of then-Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

The collaboration of clandestine interim defensive coordinator Mike Elston, figurehead interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson and suddenly defense-invested head coach Brian Kelly plopped Love, a freshman cornerback at the time, into the first starting assignment of his college career six days after VanGorder's abrupt dismissal.

In a repurposed scheme. With lots of heretofore untapped young players around him. And against Syracuse, no less, which featured the nation's No. 8 passing attack coming into the matchup in East Rutherford, N.J., and the possibility Love would be charged with defending the nation's leader in receiving yards, grad senior Amba Etta-Tawo, more often than not.

“I was a little bit nervous,” he recalled earlier this week with a chuckle.

Love registered two tackles in the game, and Etta-Tawo pulled in seven catches for 134 yards and a TD — actually below his averages at the time (10 recs., 176.5 yards) — in the 50-33 Irish victory.

The cornerback stumbled intermittently but did well enough to earn a second start and then another and then another five, and finished the season with 45 tackles. A career-high nine of those came in a 45-27 season-ending loss at USC that capped ND's 4-8 wade into mediocrity.

Eleven months after the first waft of opportunity, Love walks into Notre Dame's football season opener against Temple as the player who surged in August perhaps more than anyone else on the roster. The Irish unveil both their renovated team and reimagined Notre Dame Stadium, Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT (NBC).

DT Love, Julian's father, saw the training camp evolution coming all along, because it was by design.

When a young Julian wanted to funnel his dreams and efforts into being a wide receiver, DT enrolled him in defensive backs camps. When Julian wavered in his commitment to excellence, DT was there to make sure he didn't renege.

Call it “Tough Love,” pun intended.

“I guess everything worked out for a reason,” Julian said earlier this week. “(My dad) is a giant teddy bear when you get to know him. But when it comes to sports, he always wanted us to be tough.”

That includes Julian's older sister, Devinne, who actually played defensive tackle in a youth flag football league before becoming a high school basketball standout.

Michael too got the same treatment. He's the youngest of the Love kids and is a junior at Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, Ill., the same school that Julian helped lead to a Class 6-A state title in 2014 and a 5-A championship in 2015.

The school, located three miles from the Loves' home in Westchester, had never won a state title in any sport before Julian Love helped coax them to the 2014 crown.

Now Julian is one of the faces of Notre Dame's football offseason makeover, not the least of which was an overhaul of the strength-and-conditioning program. Saturday provides Love and the Irish their first opportunity to show how that translates to the football field.

“It's been a long offseason,” Love said. “We've excited to show the world.”

He certainly has convinced Kelly.

“Sometimes we just look at what they do on the field and their production on the field,” Kelly said of the 5-foot-11, 193-pound sophomore's last month. “He has been so productive in the weight room, as well.

“We did some speed squats (Monday), which is a real indicator of where you are in terms of neuromuscular firing, the ability to fire quickly. After 25 practices, you tend to slow down a little bit. (But) he's increased by about 22 percent in that area.

“Here is somebody that has been getting a lot of work, a lot of reps, but yet continues to increase in the weight room.

“So we're just getting a young man who's physically growing, maturing, and he's already had those character traits to play at such a young age. We're just really blessed that we've got a young man that has it all together right now.”

As Notre Dame's starting “field” corner, Love has the most ground to cover from down to down. He'll match up with a Temple receiving corps that's the Owls' strongest returning position group from last year's 10-4 AAC champs.

Junior Ventell Bryant (54 receptions, 895 yards, 4 TDs in 2016) leads the way in 2017. He has a little history with the Irish, with his best game of his redshirt freshman season coming on Halloween night 2015 (6 catches, 91 yards) in a 24-20 scare of Notre Dame in Philadelphia.

New Owls coach Geoff Collins has left it to the imagination of everyone outside the program who might be throwing to Bryant and Co. He hinted this week that he could play as many as three QBs — of the four who competed in camp to be the starter — Saturday against the Irish.

New Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko's last game at Wake Forest actually came against Temple, a 34-26 Military Bowl victory on Dec. 27, after he had accepted the job with the Irish. The Owls were held to minus-20 yards rushing and 1-of-12 third-down efficiency in the game.

Elko too has left something to the imagination, specifically when it comes to Love's long-term role this season. Elko's best option at open-field cornerback, at a position group overall loaded with talent, may also be the team's best safety — that is at least until Navy transfer Alohi Gilman's eligibility taffy pull with the NCAA is resolved.

Could Love play safety in certain packages? Could he move to ND's most tenuous position group more permanently?

"Julian Love, he's our X-factor in the secondary,” said Elko, who answered why a position shift would work but not how much or if he'd actually employ that. “He's the type of player that we can move around week in and week out and put him in a position to be successful and make plays for us.

“His ability to cover in space, his closing speed, his reactive athleticism, his ability to make plays at the end of the route and his short-area quickness are really good. But the great thing about Julian Love is his tactical awareness.

“Defensively, understanding the scheme, his position versatility really creates value for him. He's a player that we're going to be able to move around and put into different positions. He'll have success in all those positions because of his tactical awareness."

Love's reaction to the prospect of playing safety? Bring it on if that's what the team needs, but he said he has complete confidence in projected starters Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott and the three young players who are backing them up (freshmen Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark Heath, and sophomore Devin Studstill).

Love has plenty of experience being stretched into different roles. During his senior season at Nazareth Academy, Love rushed for 1,067 yards and 18 TDs, averaging more than 10 yards a carry; caught 29 passes for 662 yards and seven TDs; returned punts and kickoffs; and recorded 92 tackles (with 19 for losses), three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

The latter came while playing against current Irish teammate, freshman tight end Cole Kmet, two seasons ago. Love stripped the ball from Kmet, who played for Arlington Heights St. Viator, and scored a TD on the play.

'”That was a couple of plays after he ran me over,” Love said with a laugh. “He was probably the strongest player I ever played against in high school. It's amazing to see what he's doing now.”

The same could be said for the man in Love's mirror.

“I think I'm more confident,” he said. “I know I can compete with the best in the country. I know I've developed a chemistry with my teammates that I didn't quite have last year, because we were all young.

“Even though Coach Elko is new this year, conceptually I feel much stronger and much more confident in the way I play defense. It's like a whole new team.”

Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love (left) gets beat for a touchdown by Virginia Tech's Bucky Hodges last November in a loss to the Hokies. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)