Bryce Love Is More Than a 4.35 40: Stanford Star Crushes Speed Back Stereotype

Michael Weinreb@michaelweinrebFeatured ContributorNovember 30, 2017

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 18:  Bryce Love #20 of the Stanford Cardinal runs with the ball against the California Golden Bears at Stanford Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

For once in his life, Bryce Love is moving at a leisurely pace, emerging from a class on child cognitive development and weaving his bicycle through lunchtime traffic on the Stanford campus without even bothering to work the pedals. His lunch is tucked onto the seat behind him, and a large camouflage backpack is strapped around his shoulders. Other than the number 20 emblazoned on his sweatpants, there is little to distinguish one of the best running backs in the country from any of the other students emerging from the basement of a building crammed with high-level math students and dotted with flyers promoting lectures on the Quantization of Compact Lagrangians and Mean Field Learning Models.

There are many things about Love that can be classified as abnormal, his uncanny Olympic-caliber speed foremost among them. But on a campus rife with overachievers, Love is just another prodigy, an aspiring pediatrician who spends what little spare time he has working alongside Ph.D. candidates in a stem-cell laboratory—many of whom, like the other students he swerves past on that bicycle, have no idea he plays football.

That anonymity is a large part of why Love, like the Stanford stars who came before him, chose to play running back here in the first place. It's also why he appears vaguely uncomfortable with the school's last-minute campaign to promote him for the Heisman Trophy in the midst of a remarkable season slowed only by an ankle injury that has limited his workload over the second half of the year.

Yet what makes Love unique even on this campus is that, over the course of his three football seasons at Stanford, he has utilized his analytical mind both to work his way through a challenging curriculum as a human biology major and to transform himself from one of the fastest running backs in the country into one of the best running backs in the country heading into this weekend's Pac-12 Championship Game against USC.

"When you challenge Bryce Love with something, he will go obsess over it and turn that weakness into a strength," Stanford strength coach Shannon Turley says. "He will not allow it be a liability."

Perhaps if you've witnessed pieces of Stanford's football season from afar, you've only seen the highlights of the marathon touchdown bursts that have elevated Love into a Heisman contender. Perhaps, like some professional scouts undoubtedly will, you view Love as a potential NFL archetype: a 5'10", 196-pound speed back best deployed as a passing option on third downs, a player not big enough to become a durable three-down back.

"His size and speed make you think 'scatback,'" says B/R NFL draft scout Matt Miller, "but the lack of reps as a receiver (Love has six receptions this season) make that an unknown right now."

But here is where the people who know Bryce Love best will tell you that you are wrong. Stanford coach David Shaw compares Love to a young Jamaal Charles, a player who endured questions about his ability to run between the tackles before rushing for 1,000 yards in five out of six NFL seasons between 2009 and 2014.

Here is where they'll tell you that you're doing the one thing that motivates Love most of all—except that, unlike the myriad of modern athletes who publicly direct their motivation at perceived "doubters," Love's challenges to himself occur almost entirely in his head.

"The best thing you can do for Bryce is put a limit on him," says Dr. Michael Longaker, who oversees the stem-cell lab where Love works. "He's thinking well beyond what you would expect. Bryce is incredibly comfortable in his own skin and needs no validation or attention. He's extremely quiet, but do not underestimate him."

It's something of a challenge to get Love to talk about himself, so here's a little secret he hasn't often shared: Before his speed rendered him something of a legend in his hometown of Wake Forest, North Carolina, he was a "pudgy" little kid who wasn't particularly fast. Around the time he hit the first or second grade, a growth spurt allowed genetics to kick in, and Love, the son of a former college football player and sprinter, began outrunning his classmates during their daily races on the playground.

Soon after, Love began running track. By the time he was eight, he made it to the nationals, and he started to write down and internalize goals for himself. "He asked me then, 'What are the fastest times that have ever been run?'" says his father, Chris. "The way he outlined his goals was incredible."

"He's very meticulous in everything he does," his mother, Angela, says. "And [in] every decision he makes."

Stories of Bryce's speed soon blossomed into legend: During one Pop Warner game, an opposing coach asked if Love's jersey might be greased. By the time he started playing with the junior varsity, says Wake Forest High football coach Reginald Lucas, his coaches and teammates began holding their breath on every play, waiting for Love to break into the open field on those simple sweeps left or sweeps right.

On the track, he set multiple national records and had the nickname "Baby Bolt" bestowed on him. His burst off the line was so powerful that if his coaches didn't position the blocks carefully, he'd knock them backward. Before his freshman year in high school, he set a national record for the boys' 13-14 age group by running the 100-meter dash in 10.73 seconds. A few years later, he took off so quickly during the anchor leg of a 4x100 relay that his teammate couldn't catch him to hand him the baton.

Despite the potential to pursue an Olympic track career, Love continued to gravitate toward football.

"I started hearing about this kid named Bryce Love before he got to high school," Lucas says. "His brother [Chris Jr., who just completed his senior year as a cornerback at East Carolina] was already on my team and very talented, and people began saying that he was going to be better than his brother. I thought, 'If that's true, this kid is going to be pretty good.'"

At the same time, on the other side of the country, Shaw had begun a search for a new type of athlete. The Cardinal's primary Pac-12 nemesis at that moment was Oregon; while Shaw had typically relied on size and physicality as the cornerstones of Stanford's success, a pair of brutal losses to the Ducks in 2010 and 2011 led him to realize he needed to recruit speed on both sides of the ball as well.

Shaw shifted the Cardinal's recruiting focus from big backs like Toby Gerhart to smaller and speedier talents such as Christian McCaffrey and Love. Shaw sent former running backs coach Lance Taylor to Wake Forest to confirm if Love was as fast in person as he appeared to be on tape.

"He calls back and says, 'Coach, this guy is fast,'" Shaw says. "'He's not the biggest guy, but he runs physical. He's not like a slot receiver masquerading as a running back.'"

Love flew across the country to visit the Stanford campus and found it was exactly what he was seeking, both athletically and academically. And so a program looking to get faster and an athlete seeking to capitalize on his speed forged a partnership.

Love was slotted in to fill the utility-back role Christian McCaffrey (with whom Love became a close friend) had previously stepped into as an underclassman. One of the first things Love did was subject himself to an assessment of his weaknesses. For someone who had grown up relying on his ability to outrun everyone else, Love wanted to figure out how to turn himself into something more than just a fast guy.

Love bided his time as a backup to McCaffrey, averaging more than seven yards per carry his first two seasons. At the same time, he labored through a challenging sophomore year of classes in his human biology major: 10 units in the fall, winter and spring, all while working in Longaker's lab. None of it seemed to rattle him. "He has good control over his emotions, and great perspective," says Melissa Schellberg, an academic advisor for Stanford's football program. "I've never seen him get angry or frustrated about anything."

In the weight room, he consulted with Turley, the Cardinal's strength coach, who challenged him to alter his body.

Bryce Love has worked on becoming a back who not only is fast, but is also elusive.
Bryce Love has worked on becoming a back who not only is fast, but is also elusive.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

"I think it's well-documented Bryce is fast," Turley says, but what Love lacked, in part because of his sprinter's background, was what's known as "force reduction": He could run, but he couldn't stop himself. Eventually, Turley says, that inability to reduce his force could take a toll on his tendons. It also made him less effective as a running back now that he was facing college defenders who could swarm him, particularly when he ran between the tackles.

Love had hit the weight room hard starting in high school, but he'd never entirely shed that childhood stockiness—which wasn't a bad thing for someone who runs a 4.35 40-yard dash. Turley's goal was to get him stronger and more flexible without sacrificing that speed. Over the course of his career at Stanford, Love has gained 16 pounds while shedding body fat; he can bench-press 345 pounds nearly 20 reps at a time. By utilizing targeted exercises, Turley helped Love develop more flexibility in his hips, lower body, ankles and spine, which allowed him to develop the kind of spin moves and jump cuts that have baffled so many defenders this season.

"When he did NFL combine-style agility tests and cone drills as a freshman, you'd see a blur and then he'd have to touch the line and he'd be stuck there, like you pressed pause," Turley says. "That's the force reduction, when you stop. You have to train this into people. It's not natural. Now I don't see blur, stop, blur. Now all I see is blur."

Without slowing himself down, Love turned himself into a far more dangerous back, one capable of forging paths through the center of a defense rather than simply seeking open space to utilize his speed.

In Stanford's win over Washington on November 10, Love carried the ball 30 times for 166 yards, most of them punishing runs between the tackles as the Cardinal clung to a lead in the fourth quarter. Love repeatedly had to go to the bench to tape and then retape a sore ankle that might have limited a running back without Love's strength and flexibility to half-speed, if not confined him to the bench.

A copious note-taker, both in class and in team meetings, Love is always watching and analyzing. His parents say he studied YouTube videos of running backs like Barry Sanders growing up. Now he studies both the tendencies of a defense and the habits of his offensive linemen, with a focus on "understanding where the crease might be, and understanding how you're gonna hit it if the D-line slips this way or that way," Love says. "Understanding the little things like that just results in a comfort back there, and through that comfort you're relaxed, and not in a rush, so to speak."

Put all that together, and you have a running back who is far more complete than he may appear to be. If you speak to his coaches and his teammates and his parents, they'll tell you Love has willed himself into becoming a more well-rounded football player in the same way he's transformed himself into a more sophisticated thinker.

Love has been able to grow and mature under the radar on the Stanford campus, even as the Heisman hype has burgeoned nationally. This, says Schellberg, is a place where former Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov once landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated's college football preview in 2013, and someone in a class asked him, "What's Sports Illustrated?" But soon enough, Love will be subject to the prodding of NFL scouts who will point out his weaknesses. And if history holds, Love will internalize every one of those criticisms until they, too, become strengths.

"He's just incredibly sophisticated in his thinking," says Longaker. "The more he masters, the more he can do."

       

Michael Weinreb (@MichaelWeinreb) is the author, most recently, of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.