Love runs right out of McCaffrey's shadow

STANFORD, Calif. -- When Bryce Love is on the field, standing on the Stanford sideline requires somewhat of a poker player's mentality.

Not every player knows each offensive play call beforehand, but they're usually pretty dialed into what is probably coming. And on the occasion they do know that Love's number has been called, it creates an anxiousness they're forced to suppress.

"When we're on the sideline and know he's getting the ball, we're already antsy," fullback Daniel Marx said. "We're all anticipating something big is about to happen."

That's because through eight games this year, Love has proved to be one of the most explosive running backs college football has ever seen.

Since 1956, no one in the sport with at least 100 carries has rushed for as many yards per carry as Love has to this point (9.64). His 10 runs of 50 yards or more are already tied with Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon for the most by a FBS player in an entire season since at least 2004 and are twice as many as USC's Reggie Bush and Alabama's Derrick Henry had during their Heisman Trophy-winning seasons. His 12 touchdown runs have averaged 51.1 yards.

"Love is by far the best back we've seen all year. He does it all," Oregon coach Willie Taggart said. "He's strong -- he looks like he's a small guy, but he's strong. He's very patient and once he decides to go, he's explosive through the hole. He's one of the best in the country."

When he ran for a school-record 301 yards in a 34-24 win against Arizona State on Sept. 30, even Stanford coach David Shaw seemed stunned.

And considering Shaw coached two other Stanford running backs who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting -- Toby Gerhart in 2009 and Christian McCaffrey in 2015 -- his awe was especially revealing.

"I'm not saying he's the best one that's been through here. I'm not starting that argument," Shaw said.

"I've never seen anything like that, ever," he said.

Had Love not injured his ankle against Oregon on Oct. 14, and been held out the following game against Oregon State, he might have been in position to make a push for Barry Sanders' single-season rushing record (2,628 yards) that has stood since 1988.

As Stanford coaches started evaluating Love as a high school prospect, they saw the same things on tape he is showing the country this season.

He had such an easy time running way from defenses, though, that Stanford's staff wondered about the caliber of the teams he was playing against.

"He's from just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, in Wake Forest, and none of us know that ball really well," Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said. "You watch and he runs away from everyone and you're like, 'OK, cool.'"

Stanford sent running backs coach Lance Taylor to watch him play in person and he came back convinced Love could help right away. He wasn't just a track guy playing football. He was strong. He didn't shy away from contact. He ran through tackles and accelerated through contact.

During Bloomgren's in-home visit, he told Love the coaching staff expected McCaffrey, who was then being used in special packages as a true freshman, to evolve into the team's feature back. They saw Love filling McCaffrey's role the following year.

"At that point, I had taken a trip out and seen how they were using Christian. Met him and sat down with him. He loved that role," Love said. "You want to play as a freshman and they were honest and up front about how they would use me."

It all sounded appealing and, for an aspiring pediatrician, Stanford's combination of education and football just made sense.

One of the initial evaluations Stanford strength and conditioning coach Shannon Turley puts incoming Stanford freshmen through is a functional movement screen. The test determined Love was overpowered.

He was 5-foot-10, 180 pounds when he arrived, but had a stiff lower body. He didn't have enough functional flexibility to make the best use of his remarkable speed and power.

"I think that's the biggest thing we've been able to help him do. Is build it the right way," Turley said. "To go from that 180 to the 195 or so, and be leaner, faster, strong, more explosive, but also working on his weakness because this guy is a workhorse.

"You challenge him with something, he's going to respond. He's going to obsess about it until it's a strength. You tell him he's not good at something he's going to work at it until he becomes the best at it."

Love, Turley said, is the fastest running back Stanford has ever had. In his most recent test, Love clocked a 4.35-second laser-adjusted 40-yard-dash. That time would tie former Cal running back Jahvid Best as seventh-fastest time by a running back at the NFL combine since 2006. Best competed for Saint Lucia in the 100-meter dash at the 2016 Olympics.

Turley estimates Love could probably do about 20 reps in the bench press at 225 pounds. McCaffrey did 10 at the combine earlier this year to go along with a 4.48 in the 40.

"You look at him in the weight room and see what he's doing," Marx said. "You're dialed in to what you're doing yourself, but if you're taking a rest, you see Bryce over there lifting as much as linebackers and some of these lineman, almost. It's just astonishing."

Coming into this season, one of the more common concerns was about how the Cardinal would move on without McCaffrey, who was viewed as a once-in-a-generation type of talent. This was a guy who broke Sanders' single-season all-purpose yardage record and was drafted No. 8 overall by Carolina -- where Taylor now serves as his position coach. If production without him dropped, it would be completely understandable.

Shaw was blown away by watching Love and McCaffrey compete side-by-side in practice for the previous two seasons and knew Love had potential to be special, but wasn't sure how quickly it would be realized.

"Honestly, I thought maybe he was a year away," Shaw said. "Maybe all of this would happen after he had a good year and established a base this year and really exploded on the scene next year.

"But from when we opened training camp, we just saw it. He was so explosive and so physical, but at the same time composed and so under control. He didn't just get the ball and run full speed. He waits for blocks and when he hits the gas, it's like, 'Oh, I didn't know that extra speed was there.'"

Up until last week's 24-21 loss at Washington State, Love had been just about unstoppable, but on a snowy afternoon in Pullman, Washington, he was finally held to fewer than 100 yards. He managed just 69 yards on 15 carries and outside of a 52-yard touchdown in the first half, Love hardly looked himself.

The loss makes Friday's game at home against No. 9 Washington a must-win for Stanford's Pac-12 title hopes. It would be eliminated from contention with a loss, but with a win, ESPN's Football Power Index would give the Cardinal an 82 percent chance at winning the division.

"We don't really focus on the postseason stuff," Love said. "We have goals. We want to make it to the Pac-12 championship, and that's still feasible. We have to win this week and we have to win next week. And then we'll still have a big game at the end of the year against Notre Dame."

The stretch is just as essential for Love's Heisman quest, which needs the Cardinal to keep winning to maintain steam.

In ESPN.com's latest Heisman Watch poll, Love came in at No. 2 behind Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, the clear favorite. The most recent odds from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook have Love at 10-to-1 behind Mayfield (4-7), Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (3-2) and Notre Dame running back Josh Adams (8-1).

Beginning with Gerhart in 2009, the Heisman runner-up has come from Stanford four times. If somehow Love ends that trend and wins the award, it would go to a player who is much more comfortable deflecting praise to his teammates.

"We talk about it as an offensive line, everybody loves blocking for him because he's so freaking humble," Bloomgren said. "He wants to give them all the credit.

"No, dude, you're pretty special too."