Notre Dame CB Julian Love continues to get his hands on the football

Tyler James


Jalen Elliott asked, but he never received a straight answer.

The junior safety tried to pick cornerback Julian Love’s brain for tips on being a playmaker.

There must be something to learn about how Love always seems to be in the right place at the right time, whether it be for a pass breakup, interception or fumble recovery. Right?

“He just has a knack for the ball,” Elliott said. “He’s been that way. As long as I’ve known him, he’s been around the ball making plays. That isn’t really something we can explain.”

Love, a 5-foot-11, 193-pound junior, found ways to pop up in the middle of big plays once again last Saturday against Vanderbilt. When safety Alohi Gilman stripped Commodore wide receiver Donaven Tennyson near the goal line, Love wasn’t anywhere near the play. He was near the numbers on the sideline covering Kalija Lipscomb. But when he saw the ball fly into the air in the middle of the field, Love made a beeline to the action.

“I was far from the play,” Love said. “But then it came down, a few people kicked it around, and I’m like, ‘All right, jump on it.’ I was hoping he didn’t have full possession when the other guy jumped on it. He started spinning around and it was loose. I just kind of mugged him up for it.”

Love wrestled the ball away from Khari Blasingame after the Vanderbilt running back failed to recover the fumble cleanly. That turnover kept Notre Dame ahead 13-0 with 5:10 remaining in the second quarter, but it wouldn’t be the last loose ball Love pounced on against the Commodores.

On the final play of the game, Vanderbilt’s ill-fated lateral spree ended when Love landed on the bouncing ball following a heave by offensive lineman Egidio DellaRipa. Love, who started on the other side of the field where the pass initially was caught, beat all 10 of his teammates to the football.

There was no real teachable skill displayed by Love on either fumble recovery. Simply by hustling he became the first Irish player to recover two fumbles since linebacker Brian Smith against Michigan in 2008.

“The plays that I was making were off of effort,” Love said. “That’s what I try to tell myself every day. That’s when I play my best, when I tell myself, ‘Forget the big plays. Work hard. Effort.’”

For whatever reason, those big plays tend to come Love’s way.

Breaking up again

One of the preseason storylines on Love was his self-correction following a disappointing spring. In preparing for his encore performance to setting the school record with 20 pass breakups, Love wanted to turn some of those into interceptions.

As a result, Love was taking too many risks and losing out on too many plays. It took some time for cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght to get him to refocus on the fundamentals. Those were what made him such a good player in his sophomore season.

“He has the total package that you’re looking for in terms of playmaker at the cornerback position,” Lyght said in August.

The pass breakups have continued in 2018. In just three games, Love has recorded eight. That total puts him on pace to shatter last season’s record and it’s also good enough to lead the country. Love’s still waiting to make his first interception of the season.

Irish wide receiver Michael Young knows how hard it is to catch passes on Love. In practice, Young usually gets matched up with cornerback Troy Pride Jr. But when Love is lined up across from him, he knows what to expect.

“Julian is way more handsy, way more physical,” Young said. “I love that too because as a smaller receiver, I can’t just go against speed guys like Troy all day or guys my size. It’s great work.”

Even when the 5-10, 185-pound Young made a catch on Love in Tuesday’s practice, he was thinking about what Love was going to do.

“In my mind when the ball was in the air, the only thing I could think of was, ‘I know he’s going to get his eyes around and he’s probably going to end up making this play. I have to make it before he does.’

“That’s always in the back of my mind. I have to make this play before he does. Because he’s really good at reading hands. As soon as the hands go up, he shoots his hands up. He’s really good at playing the ball.”

That’s exactly what Love’s been taught to do, but few cornerbacks are able to do it so well. It’s come natural to him since the start of his college football career. He excels at reading his opponent.

“That’s what my skill set has been,” Love said in August. “That’s what led me to be successful early on. The playbook, being instinctual, knowing what concept I’m going to see in certain formations, and my ball skills set me apart early on.”

Covering Dortch

Love may face a different kind of challenge on Saturday trying to cover Wake Forest wide receiver Greg Dortch. The speedy slot receiver leads with 28 receptions for 336 yards and one touchdown.

“He can take over a football game,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “Electric player. Great acceleration. Great hands. Makes people miss. He’s a highlight reel.”

The Irish didn’t have to worry about Dortch last season as he was sidelined with a punctured small intestine when Wake Forest visited Notre Dame in November. How defensive coordinator Clark Lea tries to slow down Dortch will be fascinating to watch.

No one at Notre Dame is giving away the plan, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see Love matched up with Dortch at times. Even though Dortch typically plays in the slot, the Irish haven’t been afraid to move Love around to different positions in the past.

“We have to have a visual of the whole field and where he’s at because he’s such a good player,” said Elliott, who played against Dortch when both were high schoolers in Virginia. “Along with that, we can’t let that take away from the full picture of the defense. We just have to continue to prepare and know that our coaches are giving us the best game plan to stop the full offensive unit, not just one guy.”

Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t just been one guy making plays either. Elliott has two interceptions. Pride and defensive end Julian Okwara each have one. Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery leads the Irish in sacks (3) and forced fumbles (2). Gilman forced the first fumble Love recovered against Vanderbilt. Linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill have been plenty busy with a combined 56 tackles.

“Our safety play is playing out of this world,” Love said. “Troy’s playing well. (Cornerback) Donte (Vaughn)’s playing well. Our D-line is doing their thing. All across the board, we’re building off each other, we’re being accountable to each other.

“It’s not just one guy making all the plays, we’re spreading the love.”

Love — the player, not the emotion — will keep covering a lot of ground too.

Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love intercepted three passes last season, including this one on Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford on Nov. 5. Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin
Notre Dame’s Julian Love (27) breaks up a pass intended for Ball State’s Riley Miller (86) during the Sept. 8 game at Notre Dame Stadium.