Long Overlooked, Utah State QB Jordan Love Can't Hide from Stardom Anymore

Michael Weinreb@michaelweinrebFeatured Contributor

Utah State quarterback Jordan Love looks to the sidelines as his team plays Wake Forest in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Editor's note: This article was first published on October 4, 2019.


Eighty miles north of the nearest major American city, in a college town at the foot of the Bear River Mountains, the most intriguing quarterback prospect in this year's draft class leans back in his chair and props his feet up on a table. A bag of candy hearts with the word "Heisman" printed on each sits nearby, part of a low-key media campaign from the school's sports information office.

Jordan Love pays it little attention.

He is nothing if not a chill guy, but this is likely to be one of the last quiet weeks he'll experience for quite some time. An early-season bye awaits Love and his Utah State teammates on this particular Saturday, and the hallways of the football offices are largely quiet, save for the pair of NFL scouts in team-logo windbreakers ambling toward the front doors.

In a way, Love admits all of this scrutiny is still a little strange, especially here in Logan, a town of about 50,000 residents that seems to enjoy its isolation from the outside world. Four years here, preceded by a childhood in Bakersfield, California, have gotten him accustomed to living in a bubble. He can't imagine what life is like for Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama or Trevor Lawrence at Clemson or Justin Herbert at Oregon, all of whom have been dealing with NFL expectations since they were freshmen. If Love had landed at a major program and began his career under that kind of microscope, he imagines he'd be miserable by now.

"Not too much going on in Logan," Love says. "It's a little hideout."

He landed here only partially by choice: His only FBS scholarship offer came from Utah State. But that twist of fate allowed Love time to learn and grow at his own pace over the past four years, both physically and emotionally. And he desperately needed that time to find himself, particularly after the sudden death of his father threatened to devastate his psyche.

That time out of the spotlight is now nearing its end. These days, the NFL finds you wherever you are, and after a stellar redshirt sophomore season, scouts found Jordan Love in a big way. And what they've seen is a player who appears to possess a tantalizing combination of some of the college game's most celebrated talents in recent years.

At 6'4" and 225 pounds, he is long, lean and athletic, with enough power to break tackles and enough elusiveness and arm strength to make creative and accurate throws on the run. With a hint of Patrick Mahomes' improvisational ability, he'll sidearm a pass to a running back while under pressure, or make a seemingly ill-advised throw across his body that lands softly in his receiver's hands 40 yards downfield. He also has a trace of Daniel Jones' versatility and carries himself with a touch of Marcus Mariota's laid-back nature. His emergence out of the oft-overlooked Mountain West Conference echoes the rise of Josh Allen at Wyoming, and Love's childhood reverence for Michael Vick is apparent whenever he scrambles out of trouble and hurls a deep pass to a streaking receiver.

With every game Love plays, pro scouts are falling harder and harder for him, because he's made playing the most difficult position in football appear comparatively easy.

"He's a really natural throwerit almost looks effortless for him," one college scout says. "He can make every kind of throw. He doesn't seem to strain to do anything."

With an ability to move and throw on the run, Jordan Love has NFL scouts regularly checking in with his coaches and on his games.
With an ability to move and throw on the run, Jordan Love has NFL scouts regularly checking in with his coaches and on his games.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

On Saturday, Love will play the most consequential football game of his career when Utah State faces No. 5 LSU. If he performs well, he could not only establish Utah State as the team to beat in a loaded Mountain West, but he also might further a long-shot Heisman campaign and cement his status as one of the three best draft-eligible quarterbacks of the 2020 class. A number of NFL and talent evaluators, including Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, believe Love could wind up as the second quarterback chosen next April, perhaps even a top-10 pick behind only Tagovailoa.

"Tua's almost a little bit more like a robot," Miller says. "With Justin Herbert [at Oregon], there are some concerns about the mental aspects. I don't think that's an issue with Jordan Love."

Love is a near-certainty to become the first Utah State quarterback drafted since 1989. He could still choose to return for his senior season next fall, but if he keeps putting up the numbers he has thus far, he might soon become the most high-profile Aggie in the NFL since Hall of Fame defensive tackle Merlin Olsen.

Nearly every day now, NFL scouts show up at the school's practice facility and pepper Aggies veteran offensive coordinator Mike Sanford with questions. Sanford worked with Andrew Luck at Stanford and helped to bring Ian Book to Notre Dame after originally recruiting him while at Boise State. And he doesn't hesitate to say now that Love has everything you need to play in the NFL, including a league-friendly attitude.

"He's such a humble kid, man," Sanford says. "Seeing a press clipping or being on some kind of top-10 list doesn't do anything for him. He doesn't get too excitable about things that aren't real."

To Love, all of this attention is still a bit surreal, in large part because his rise has been so meteoric. As a high school freshman, he was a scrawny wide receiver who got beat out for the starting job on the junior varsity team at Liberty High in Bakersfield. By the time Love was playing quarterback as a senior, he put up strong numbers but was rated a 2-star recruit by Rivals.com. He was courted mostly by FCS schools like Eastern Washington.

Six years later, he's on the verge of living out his father's dream of having his son play in the NFL.

As much as it frustrates Love that his father Orbin isn't here to witness his gradual rise, he keeps what he learned from his dad with himnot to get caught up in his own hype.

"It is kind of sinking in, yet at the same time, you can't really let it sink in," Love says. "But growing up and wanting to be in the NFL your whole life, the time is here where it's like, 'It can happen.'"

Love's inherent humility is a trait both of his parents shared. Orbin Love spent decades as a Bakersfield police officer, and his mother, Annawho declined to be interviewed for this story, telling her son she "isn't good at that stuff"is a California Highway Patrol officer based in Bakersfield who travels to every one of her son's games, no matter the distance.

Love is connecting on 64.8 percent of his pass attempts this season, a career high while at Utah State.
Love is connecting on 64.8 percent of his pass attempts this season, a career high while at Utah State.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Orbin, a junior college running back and quarterback, nudged his son toward football, and particularly toward quarterback, a position that would allow Jordan to initiate the action on offense. Still, in his preteen years, after dabbling in pretty much every sport you can imagine (including gymnastics, which he hated), Jordan progressed more quickly as a basketball player.

But in July 2013the summer before Jordan's sophomore year of high schoolOrbin, after a prolonged struggle with his mental health, killed himself while Jordan was away at a youth basketball game.

After his father's death, Jordan retreated into a shell and considered quitting sports altogether. But he soon found that the football field became both a sanctuary and a way of honoring his father's memory.

As a senior, he threw for more than 2,000 yards. Still, he viewed himself largely as an outsider in the sport. He never much enjoyed attending quarterback camps, where the attention was often given to more high-profile prospects.

"I was a little bit smaller, skinny," Love says. "My arm strength wasn't there yet. I just didn't know who I was yet, really."

Even after his family hired well-known Southern California quarterback guru Steve Clarkson to coach him, he was mostly viewed as too raw—at 6'3" and 180 poundsto make it at the FBS level. Sanford, his current offensive coordinator, considered offering Love a scholarship while he was an assistant at Boise State, but he instead went after Ian Book.

"Jordan was kind of a project with, obviously, what's proven to be insane amounts of upside," Sanford says. "I will say this: For every 10 tall, lanky, skinny, not strong, not developed quarterbacks with long motions, one of them turns into a Jordan Love."

Utah State head coach Matt Wells had the time to see the process through.

Love redshirted as a true freshman in 2016 while the Aggies struggled through a 3-9 season, then took over the starting job in the second half of the 2017 season. In 2018, Love threw for more than 3,500 yards, 32 touchdowns and only six interceptions, guiding Utah State to an 11-2 record.

That success propelled Wells to the Texas Tech job, but when new head coach Gary Andersen and Sanford arrived this past offseason, they decided to keep the basic structure of the offense Love had thrived in last year. That meant Love could focus on the little thingsprocessing information faster, reading defenses and connecting with a corps of competent receivers.

In a way, Sanford says, Love is almost a throwback in an NFL now obsessed with shorter quarterbacks who can release the ball more quickly. But Sanford adds that Love's release is incredibly quick for someone of his size. And his accuracy, his teammates say, is remarkable.

Love took over as the full-time starting quarterback at Utah State in 2018, and led the Aggies to a 11-2 record, including a win in the New Mexico Bowl.
Love took over as the full-time starting quarterback at Utah State in 2018, and led the Aggies to a 11-2 record, including a win in the New Mexico Bowl.Andres Leighton/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Pretty sure it was my freshman year, and my first fall camp scrimmage," Utah State receiver Savon Scarver says. "He made this back-shoulder throw down the sideline. The defender was literally on the receiver's body, and the receiver's running full speed, and he put it right in the perfect spot. That's when I was, like, 'Man, this dude is something special.' He could always do that stuff. It's just that now, he's way more polished."

In an effort to take on a leadership role this season, Love says he's consulted with Utah State's mental performance coach, Richard "Doc" Gordin, who's suggested Love "find everybody's why" when trying to motivate his teammates. But ask Love himself what his why is, and he doesn't hesitate.

It hasn't been an easy journey, but he knows who he is now, and he knows exactly why he's doing this.

"For my family, and definitely my dad," he says. "The pride he would have had, I can feel it."


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