- Bryce Love is averaging over 10 yards per carry, aiming for Barry Sanders's rushing record and working in a stem cell research lab where half the people don't know they're in the presence of a Heisman front-runner.
Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren wants to enumerate all the reasons that junior tailback Bryce Love could challenge the holiest of rushing records—the NCAA single-season mark of 2,628 yards set by Barry Sanders in 1988. He wants to explain how Love has zoomed over the last year from speedy backup to Heisman Trophy candidate who averages 10.3 per carry. But words often fail to accurately describe the labors of Love. So Bloomgren, sitting in his office at the Cardinal football facility, begins pecking on his keyboard. “I’ve got to show you a clip,” he says, chuckling to himself.
Video from Stanford’s 23–20 win over Utah on Oct. 7 appears on a hanging flat-screen. It’s a first-down play from the second quarter, filmed from the usual television angle—the Cardinal moving from left to right. It’s a standard inside zone that morphs into another sublime Love run. The 5'10" 195-pounder finds a crease before bouncing outside for extra yardage. The stat sheet says he gained 39 yards to set up first-and-goal at the seven. “Now watch it from this angle,” Bloomgren says, cuing up an end-zone shot facing the offense.
A year ago, Love might have been tackled for a modest gain on the play. But he now understands how to combine analysis with his natural gifts. As the play evolves, Bloomgren suggests watching Love’s eyes as the back diagnoses, one by one, potential problems that come in the form of Utah defensive players.
Problem No.1: linebacker Sunia Tauteoli
Love is looking at Tauteoli, who races toward the line of scrimmage to where he thinks the back will run. Love decides he’ll evade Tauteoli with a jump cut to the left. The back hugs the left hip of offensive lineman David Bright as the inside linebacker draws closer. Love springs left, leaving a diving Tauteoli grabbing air. Love doesn’t see this. His eyes have shifted to...
Problem No. 2: safety Philip Afia
Love decides to use Afia’s momentum and training against him. He squares up and runs straight at the strong safety. For a split second the play looks like a kickoff return. A team’s fastest player is carrying the ball in a straight line. Every player who has ever covered a kickoff is taught to slow to try to force the ballcarrier to make a move—hopefully in the direction of another tackler. But Love chose his move as he was juking Tauteoli. The moment Afia decelerates, Love plants his right foot and blasts to his left. His eyes move to...
Problem No. 3: safety Corrion Ballard
As Afia dives, Love decides to bounce left again to avoid Ballard, the free safety. Before he can, Afia will make one more desperate stab.
Here, Bloomgren stops the play. “Watch what he does with his right foot,” he says. Before Afia can ensnare Love’s leg like a lasso in an old Western, Love lifts it twice as high as he would in a normal stride. He clears Afia’s arm but he never stops looking at Ballard, who has chosen too extreme an angle. Ballard overruns Love, who continues to the left sideline and keeps running until another defender knocks him out-of-bounds inside the 10.
“This is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve seen just in terms of freaky awareness,” Bloomgren says. “How the hell does he know to do that?” His best answer to his own question? “Spidey sense.”
The next day, sitting in Stanford’s sports information office, Love is asked how he knows to do that. “Daaag, it’s probably instinct,” he says. Love doesn’t like to talk about himself. How “aw shucks” is he? He even has a word that serves as a synonym for aw shucks. Before answering any question in a way that might be construed as boastful, he says Daaaag. That’s right. He even sanitizes dang.
In Love’s first two seasons on The Farm, his Spidey sense remained under wraps, largely because of the record-smashing feats of All-America starter Christian McCaffrey. But once McCaffrey left for the NFL, Love began doing Ph.D.-level studies under new running backs coach Ron Gould—even as he was doing classwork that could one day lead to an M.D. after his name.
To understand how Stanford became home to the country’s most electrifying player, rewind to 2011. That July, a 14-year-old Love won the 200 meters in his age group at the USA Track & Field Junior Olympics. He had already set USATF records—which still stand—in the 100 (11.64) and 400 (50.75) for the 11-and-12 age group and the 100 (10.73) in the 13-and-14. Had he chosen to concentrate on track, he might now be thinking about the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. But football was always his primary passion. His father, Christopher, played defensive back at South Carolina, covering Sterling Sharpe at practice. His uncle Reggie played DB at North Carolina. Bryce’s older brother, Chris, was already on the Wake Forest–Rolesville High varsity, in suburban Raleigh, and would play cornerback at East Carolina.
In November 2011, David Shaw suffered the worst defeat of his first season as Stanford’s coach, falling 53–30 to Chip Kelly’s Oregon team. Shaw determined the Cardinal couldn’t rely on the “win with cruelty” philosophy that fueled the Jim Harbaugh era. They had the beef they needed at the line of scrimmage, but beating the Ducks required something else. “We need to be big and physical, but we’ve got to be able to run,” Shaw recalls telling his staff. “We need enough athletic ability—enough speed.”
Shaw grew intrigued by Love’s sprinting prowess after seeing his times on DyeStat.com. But straight-line speed doesn’t help a tailback unless he’s also strong enough to run between the tackles and shifty enough to break into the open field. Additionally, Love needed the grades to get into Stanford. Shaw usually can tell from a recruit’s questions if he’s serious about Stanford. When Love asked how he might structure his major to best prepare him to get into medical school, the coach knew he had a chance. All Shaw had to do then was persuade the self-described mama’s boy to attend college nearly 3,000 miles from home.
Love says his parents, who both work in information technology, fell in love with Stanford even before they visited the campus. Still, even as 2015 National Signing Day approached, he was on the fence: North Carolina (a 50-minute drive from home) and Tennessee (a six-hour drive) remained possibilities. Only when he had the Stanford hat on his head did Love feel at ease with his choice.
When Love signed, McCaffrey had just finished his freshman season. Running a limited package of plays, McCaffrey had averaged 7.1 yards a carry and 14.8 yards a catch in 2014. Though Stanford’s primary backs had previously been bruisers, Shaw and Bloomgren planned to make the 6-foot, 201-pound McCaffrey the centerpiece of the attack. Love would slide into the role McCaffrey played as a freshman—if he was ready.
Love’s teammates knew almost immediately that he was. During player-led workouts in the summer of 2015, veterans marveled at Love in the Box Breakaway drill, in which an offensive skill player is tied to a defensive back or linebacker using a cord connected by a Velcro closure. If the offensive player can create enough separation to snap the cord without leaving the tight boundaries of the drill, he wins. After Love prevailed in epic matchups against freshman safety Justin Reid, he started whipping older players too. “You expect him to go one way,” Reid says. “All of a sudden he’s going another way. Then the string would snap.”
McCaffrey rewrote records that season, slipping through holes that might have been too small for former Cardinal tailbacks Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor or Tyler Gaffney. Though Love got only 44 touches, he gained 10.8 per touch. In his second game, against Central Florida, he caught a receiver screen just behind the line of scrimmage and raced 93 yards for a touchdown. “It was just about the fastest 93 yards I’ve ever seen,” Shaw says. “He made one guy miss, and we all just kind of turned our heads and said, My gosh.”
While trying to master his small piece of the offense on the field, Love took his first steps toward another dream. When he was a boy, he came down with pneumonia, and though he was never in any serious danger, he felt “horrible.” The doctors helped him with medication but also with empathy, and Love decided then that he wanted to be a pediatrician. Stanford students are allowed to customize their course work; center Jesse Burkett, for example, designed a double major in Japanese and symbolic systems. Love decided to major in human biology and loaded his track with classes that examine physical and mental development during childhood.
For a few days a week during the season and on weekdays during the summer, Love works in the laboratory of Michael Longaker, a surgeon who studies how stem cells might be used to help patients heal without scarring. Love does grunt work to aid Ph.D. candidates, medical students and doctors who may or may not follow football. “He’s learned a lot of fundamental cell biology, how you work with animals, how you grow cells, how you analyze wounds,” says Longaker, who backed up Magic Johnson at Michigan State. “The shocking thing to me is over half to two-thirds of the lab just know him as Bryce Love, undergraduate. They have no idea that he’s one of the leading candidates for the Heisman. And I think that’s what he likes.”
Longaker jokes that he might try to raise the tailback’s profile in the lab by getting him a lab coat emblazoned DR. LOVE. “I’m sure he’d be mortified,” Longaker says.
Though still backing up McCaffrey, Love established himself as a future star in 2016, when he ran for 783 yards on only 111 carries. But when Gould, who trained Marshawn Lynch, Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen at Cal, arrived this past offseason after four years as the UC Davis coach, he watched those carries and saw opportunities lost. “Stevie Wonder can see that you’re a great talent,” Gould told Love when they met. “But right now I don’t see you as a great player.”
To satisfy Gould, Love would have to stop trying to outrun tacklers in space and start setting them up to fail before they ever got near him. At most practices Gould sends would-be tacklers at Love from every angle so he can learn to use their momentum against them. He makes Love navigate a maze of bags to teach him to pick up his feet and never stop moving them. And most days during camp and twice a week during the season, Gould has an assistant whack Love with a tackling dummy so he learns to keep his balance running inside.
Love is determined to master advanced techniques. Every time a run in a game doesn’t reach the end zone, he asks the same question of teammates and coaches: “What did you see?” Gould asks it right back, and they determine what Love might have done differently. “When you have an opportunity to get to 400 yards rushing [in a game],” Gould told Love earlier this season, “let’s get to 400 yards.” The closest Love has come: 301, on just 25 carries, in a 34–24 win over Arizona State.
The honing of these skills has turned Love from a quality back into a scoring threat on every handoff. Love has scored on a run of at least 51 yards in each of the past six games. With 1,387 yards, he has outrushed 92 FBS teams. To break Sanders’s record of 2,628, which Sanders set in 11 games, Love must average 207 yards a game the rest of the way if Stanford doesn’t win its division and plays 13 games. If Stanford wins its division and plays 14 games, he needs to average 177.4 yards.
Everyone in Stanford’s football complex has a favorite moment from the book of Love. For Reid, it’s the 59-yard touchdown against Arizona State, when Love tightroped the left sideline while shaking a DB off his back. “People have the misconception that he’s a small guy, that he’s easy to bring down,” Reid says. “Guys who think like that get punished.”
Burkett prefers the play against Utah when Love ran through 295-pound defensive end Filipo Mokofisi and turned a two-yard gain into a 19-yarder.
Bloomgren’s favorite, of course, is the 39-yard run against the Utes, though he never tires of reliving others. A few weeks ago, while meeting with the offensive linemen, Bloomgren kept rewinding a Love touchdown.
“Guys, this has to be fun, right?” he asked the blockers.
“Coach, if we just hold our blocks…” the lineman said. Then he snapped his fingers. “The dude’s gone.”