The Bryce Love Playbook: Start Slow, Finish Fast
On and off the field, Stanford’s star running back waits for the right moment.
By Phil Taylor
Photography: Bob Drebin/Isiphotos.com
The sight is familiar by now, but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling — Bryce Love at full speed, racing toward the end zone with the football while defenders give hopeless chase, just like the kids who could never catch him when he was running down the track back home in Wake Forest, N.C. He was so fast that people back then started calling him Baby Bolt, after Usain Bolt, the gold-medal-winning Olympic sprinter.
Love, a junior running back, has been accelerating away from would-be tacklers all season, headed into the Stanford record books and toward a possible Heisman Trophy. But his success isn’t just because he’s so fast, but also because he knows when to go slowly. “The thing that Bryce has, and this is something that players with great speed like his sometimes have a hard time developing,” says Stanford coach David Shaw, “is patience.”
Shaw, ’94, was referring to the way Love, who set national age-group records as a middle school track star, doesn’t try to turn every run into an immediate sprint for the finish line. After one of the Cardinal quarterbacks hands him the ball, he often glides for a moment or two to give his linemen time to make their blocks, like a Ferrari waiting for traffic to clear, before he finds a crack and darts through.
That approach serves him so well that he has been the nation’s leading rusher most of the year, from the moment he broke away for a 62-yard run against Rice on Stanford’s first offensive play of the season. Through the Cardinal’s Big Game against Cal, Love had gained 1,723 yards, second-most in the country, despite missing one game in October and being hampered in three others by a lingering ankle injury. He ran for a school-record 301 yards against Arizona State, but perhaps his most impressive performance came against then ninth-ranked Washington on November 10, when he rushed for 166 yards and three touchdowns while “playing on one leg,” according to Shaw. Chalk it up to Love’s ability to be both willing to wait and ready to pounce.
“I believe in controlled aggression,” Love says. “I don’t want to get too hyped up. I might miss a gap here, a cut that I could make there. My coaches do a great job of reminding me of it when we watch film, and sometimes I’ll say it to myself when I get the ball, ‘Don’t rush. Don’t rush. Not yet.’”
That’s in keeping with Love’s analytical nature. He’s a soft-spoken, self-described “mama’s boy” who laughs easily but still projects an obvious seriousness of purpose. When he was 12, he decided to stop going by his first name, Jonathan, in favor of his middle name because he felt “Bryce” sounded more mature. Although he wasn’t even sure where Stanford was when the Cardinal began recruiting him, he instantly felt at home living in Nerd Nation. “I’m a nerd, I won’t fight the title,” he says. “It’s a pretty smooth thing, to be intelligent and educated while combining that with athletic success. I like that balance.”
He has shown a natural ability to bide his time. His Stanford career has been like one of his trademark runs — a slow, steady build culminating in a burst of success. He insists he didn’t get antsy at all during his first two years at Stanford as the understudy to star running back Christian McCaffrey, ’18, who was a year ahead of him. “I knew from the first time I saw Christian in practice that he was going to do great things,” Love says. “Being able to learn from him was an incredible opportunity.”
He’s also willing to take the long view toward his goal of becoming a pediatrician. Love is a human biology major with a concentration in child and adolescent development, and he works a few days a week in surgeon Michael Longaker’s stem cell research lab.
Love mostly observes the med students, PhD candidates and doctors and helps out with minor procedures involving the lab’s studies into the possibility of using stem cells to help surgical patients heal without scarring. “I just try to be a sponge and pick up as much as I can,” he says. He cringes at hearing that Longaker has joked about getting him a lab coat with “Dr. Love” on it. “I’d love to have that someday,” he says, “but only when I’ve earned it.”
But medical school will have to wait until after he pursues an NFL career, which could begin next year if he skips his senior season and makes himself eligible for the NFL draft, as most observers expect. Don’t be too quick to assume Love will bypass his final year on the Farm, however. “All options are open,” he says about next season’s plans. “I love this place so much. All those decisions will come later on.”
Another decision involving Love will come much sooner. The results of the Heisman Trophy balloting will be announced on December 10, and as one of the leading contenders, he will almost certainly be one of the finalists invited to New York for the ceremony announcing the winner. Despite his accomplishments this season, the Heisman polls are among the few places where Love has never been ahead of the pack. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley was on top in most polls early in the season, and now that Barkley has fallen back, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield has emerged as the favorite, with Love considered number two by most prognosticators.
If he finishes second, it would be a regrettably familiar result for Stanford. A Cardinal player has been the Heisman runner-up in four of the last eight seasons, a stretch of near-misses that’s both impressive and, for Stanford fans, maddening.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Love’s chances, exacerbated now by the injury that has limited him, is a lack of national exposure. Nine of Stanford’s 12 games were scheduled to start at 10 p.m. Eastern time or later, meaning many Heisman voters had only glimpses of Love. “ESPN, Fox and all the other [networks] tell you you’ve got good ratings,” Shaw says, “and then you get to midseason and all the people on the East Coast are saying, ‘Who’s this kid again?’ because they haven’t seen him.”
Shaw believes the time zone issue not only limits the number of voters who see Love live, but also reduces the buzz around him because the timing of most of his games keeps him from being a regular part of the Saturday-afternoon conversation. “You play earlier in the day and your highlights get shown over the next five hours,” he says. “Over the course of the day, you see the highlights from the earlier games. But if you play Saturday night, the next morning is all about the NFL. Part of how you come to appreciate great players is you see them not just when they play, you see them and hear about them repeatedly throughout the rest of the day.”
None of that really matters to Love. Analyzing the Heisman race isn’t nearly as interesting to him as analyzing his runs. “I’m not sure people believe me when I say I don’t really think about it, but I don’t,” he says of the Heisman. “Friends tell me where I am in the latest polls, but otherwise I wouldn’t even know. I’m just more focused on winning, on the next game, the next play. The only time I really think about the award is when people ask me about it.”
It wasn’t that long ago that the only reward Love craved was a bag of Skittles. He ran track as a grade-schooler back in Wake Forest and his coach, Danny Peoples, would give him the candy when he achieved certain goals. The motivation clearly worked — Love set three national records in the 11–12 age group for the 100 (11.64 seconds), 200 (23.37) and 400 meters (50.75) at the Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships. Two years later, he set new records in the 13–14 age group in the 100 (10.73) and 200 (21.83). Although the Olympics were shaping up as a plausible goal, football remained Love’s true passion. “He scored his first touchdown in flag football when he was 5 years old,” says his father, Chris, who played college football and ran track at the University of South Carolina. “Once he did that, he was hooked.”
When the Stanford coaching staff saw Love as a high school player, they felt the same way. He’s 5’11” and 196 pounds, but the tape measure and scale can’t adequately measure how powerfully he runs. “He’s not tall, but he’s not small,” was the report that running backs coach Lance Taylor brought back to Shaw after watching Love for the first time on a recruiting trip. “You look at him and he’s so small of a back, but he’s so strong and gifted,” Oregon coach Willie Taggart said before Love ran for 147 yards and two touchdowns against the Ducks despite sitting out nearly the entire second half. “We’re definitely going to have to gang tackle. It’s not going to be just one guy bringing that guy down.”
Then there’s Love toughness, which has been especially evident since he injured his ankle against Oregon. It was still bothering him three weeks later when the Cardinal played Washington. His final carry of that game was a 35-yard burst that helped seal a 30–22 win for Stanford. After he was tackled along the sideline, he immediately limped over to the bench, having reaggravated the injury. “I’m not going to mention any awards, but if he doesn’t win them all, then I don’t know what’s going on,” Shaw said after the game. “This guy is unbelievable.”
Such comments might seem like hyperbole unless you’ve watched Love shred defenses all season. And here is a statistic that validates Shaw’s point: In the 10 games in which Love has played, he has run for 11 touchdowns of at least 50 yards, more than any other player in the history of college football’s top division.
Ask Love to pick his favorite run and he can’t choose, because he’s never been completely satisfied with one. “People ask Tom Brady what his favorite Super Bowl win is, and he always says, ‘The next one,’” Love says, referring to the New England Patriots quarterback who has four Super Bowl titles. “That’s how I feel. My favorite run is always the next one.”
Stanford fans no doubt feel the same way about watching him. They know the next breakaway run could come at any moment, and that Love is worth the wait. •
Phil Taylor, ’83, is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer.