Last January, just a few hours before the deadline to declare for the NFL draft, Bryce Love decided to put off going pro and return to Stanford to play his senior season and get his degree in human biology. Despite his highly publicized commitment to his education and dream of becoming a pediatrician, his decision still came as a surprise. Draft-eligible running backs with the level of production Love had last season usually declare for the draft as soon as possible in order to take advantage of the short prime earning years for NFL runners.
His senior year opened with a quiet day against San Diego State, with just 29 yards on 18 carries. The Aztec defense loaded up the box to stop him—Love had nowhere to go. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the box score, but the performance scored as a hit with NFL scouts.
“When you’re factoring in his size, some of the questions in the passing game, it wasn’t a slam-dunk that he was going to be a [top pick last year],” says one veteran evaluator who also scouted Love last season. “I think he helped himself by returning, because he needs to prove himself in the passing game more than what he has done in the past. His pass protection was a question last year.”
The quickest way for a rookie running back to get on the field is by proving his worth in pass protection, and that’s what scouts will be keeping close tabs on this season when it comes to Love. They’ve already seen his speed and toughness as a runner, and the incredible things he can do in space with his trademark burst. The main questions Love needs to answer this fall: Can he thrive as a three-down back?
As for the opener: “It was an anomaly for Bryce to have less than 100 yards, but right out the gate, he showed improvement in pass protection,” the scout says. “He can block face-up and he proved it in that game, so he is off to a good start in proving himself in that area.”
In the post-game press conference, head coach David Shaw specifically called out Love for his blitz pick-ups, saying he missed one but, “the rest were phenomenal.”
Against USC on Saturday night, Love was back to business with his 16th career hundred-yard rushing game. He had one 59-yard run on which he exploited an outside lane created by the tight end and left tackle. But, more importantly in NFL scouts’ eyes, Love also continued to show improvement in pass protection. On first-and-10 in the third quarter, USC linebacker Cameron Smith—a draft prospect himself—blitzed. The 5' 10", 200-pound Love carried out a play-action fake then got the job done against the 6' 2", 250-pound Smith, blocking the linebacker face-up and keeping quarterback K.J. Costello clean. “He is proving that he can stay in there against linebackers and compete,” the scout says. “When those undersized guys become tentative, they will oftentimes just dive at the ground and get out of the way. Bryce Love hasn’t shown any of that whatsoever. For the first two games I think you are going to be able to put to bed the question, Is he is going to be a liability in pass protection? He has done a great job so far.”
His value as a pass-catcher has been tougher to gauge. Stanford hasn’t featured Love as a receiver often in his career, which leaves scouts to wonder why. “People are questioning if it is an actual ball skills issue or if just strictly he hasn’t been given the opportunity to showcase it,” the evaluator says.
Last season, Love had only six catches for 33 yards. He’s had 29 total catches in college. This Stanford team has an arsenal of veteran pass-catching weapons, including WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside and TE Kaden Smith, so Love might not see a significant increase in targets. Scouts are just looking for him to demonstrate solid route-running and show reliable and consistent hands when he is thrown to.
Love had three catches for 18 yards against San Diego State, which is already half his total catches from last season. With 37 seconds left in the first half and the Cardinal trailing San Diego State, 7-2, he ran a quick out route and caught a pass for a first down, getting out of bounds to stop the clock. His catch and clock awareness set Stanford up for a touchdown on the next play. Love didn’t have any catches against USC—it seems clear Shaw isn’t going to force-feed Love just to improve his draft stock. Even so, evaluators expect him to finish the season with more tape that shows his ability as a receiver.
Love will miss this week’s game against UC-Davis with an undisclosed injury. As long it’s not serious, the scout thinks Love made the right choice to return for his senior year. “He didn’t have the massive workload his first or second season, to the point where you would be alarmed.” Love backed up Christian McCaffrey as a freshman and sophomore, logging just 130 carries. As a junior, he had 403 carries. By comparison, when McCaffrey decided to declare for the draft after his junior season, he had 632 collegiate carries.
There’s also the fact that last year’s running back class was particularly strong and deep, with Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, Rashaad Penny, Nick Chubb, Ronald Jones II, Sony Michel and Kerryon Johnson headlining. With less competition at the top of the 2019 draft class, and with continued improvement in the passing game, a first-round slot is well within reach for Love.
THE SCOUT’S NOTES
NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on this season…
Will Grier, QB, West Virginia: He’s locked in at practice. He’ll make a play, chest bump with the receiver and then go talk about it with coaches. Really high-motor energy. Athletically, he’s tough. He can play off-schedule, he has all the traits you want. The only knock is the character issues with his transfer from Florida [Grier was suspended for violating the NCAA’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs].
Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State: He’s built like Cardale Jones, with a rocket for an arm; he can rip it. He’s a big, big player. They are going to be way better because they don’t have J.T. Barrett and will be able to do more with their offense. He’s a redshirt sophomore and if he has a good year, I’ve heard he might come out for the draft. It’s something to keep an eye on.
Riley Neal, QB, Ball State: He’s big dude [6' 6", 225]. He throws with an effortless motion, like a closer in baseball where they pitch and it looks so easy and it’s 98 mph. It comes off his hand so easily. He’s definitely a sleeper quarterback.
SENIOR BOWL SCOUTING NOTEBOOK
Former longtime NFL scout and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy shares the matchups he’s monitoring this week…
Boston College DE Zach Allen vs. Wake Forest LG Phil Haynes
Thursday-night ESPN primetime matchups generally draw big NFL crowds because college directors and national scouts try to double-up with live exposures on a weekend. Area scouts are forced to drive most places, but “cross-checker” type scouts have the luxury of flying so they can hit a big matchup on Thursday and another one on Saturday. This week, the Reese’s Senior Bowl will be at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem to check out the head-to-head matchup of Allen vs. Haynes.
This game originally was set to feature an edge matchup between Allen and Wake Forest left tackle Justin Herron, however, last week’s announcement that Herron would miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury has now shifted the focus squarely on fellow seniors Haynes and center Ryan Anderson.
Herron entered the season with 37 starts for Wake and his loss is a big blow for the Demon Deacons offense. While he was not highly graded by the scouting services last spring, Herron was generating a lot of buzz among scouts during my travels in August. Herron’s dad and two uncles all played basketball at Villanova, so it comes as no surprise that NFL teams are intrigued by his twitchy genetics and overall athletic ability. Scouts are concerned about Herron’s lack of bulk and strength, however, sources at the school say that he was consistently holding over 290 pounds for the first time and it is far easier for NFL teams to pack on mass to his frame than make his feet and hands faster. Based off tape and what I was hearing on the road prior to his setback, he projected as a legitimate left tackle prospect for the next level. Now we must wait and see how he bounces back next fall.
Allen would have been a tough draw for Herron because his game is mostly power and Herron’s replacement, junior Jake Benzinger, will likely struggle on the edge. The Eagles will move Allen around and when he reduces inside it will be a good battle of power on power with Haynes, who is the strongest player on the Deacons’ offensive line. It’s one thing to be strong in the weight room, but it’s another thing to play strong on the field. The first thing scouts comment on when they talk about Haynes is how functionally strong he is, and Allen will be a great test.
Scouts like Allen because he is a big five-technique DE that can play on every down. He is a productive point-of-attack player against the run and, unlike most fence-post-type run defenders, Allen shows the ability to push the pocket and affect the QB. Some will try to pigeonhole him as simply a sound technician or overachieving tough guy, but Allen is the type of sneaky athlete that grows on you the more tape you watch. While he is admittedly not a wow-you type of athlete, he has good enough feet, balance, and body control to play off blocks and down the line of scrimmage to make plays.
Former teammate and bookend, Harold Landry, a second-round pick of the Tennessee Titans, was knocked by scouts last April for of his inconsistent effort, but Allen is active and involved regardless of what game film you watch. He uses his hands well in both phases and he just keeps coming. From a pure numbers perspective, Allen was only one of two defensive linemen in the entire country to record 100-plus tackles. In this matchup, the Deacons will need a collective effort on the left side from Benzinger, Haynes, and Anderson in order to keep Allen in-check. With Hurricane Florence bearing down on North Carolina, wet and windy conditions could turn this into a run-heavy game and who wins in the trenches will likely determine the winner in a game of pretty evenly-matched ACC teams.
UC-Davis WR Keelan Doss vs. Stanford CB Alijah Holder: Scouts want to see Doss use his size and play “big on the ball” against a good-sized corner like Holder.
Miami (Fla.) Defensive Backfield vs. Toledo WR Cody Thompson: Thompson gets to prove himself against the loaded Miami secondary of Michael Jackson, Jaquan Johnson, and Sheldrick Redwine.
North Alabama FS Chris Johnson vs. North Dakota State QB Easton Stick: Stick will be challenged in the deep middle of the field by the ball-hawking Johnson, who had 10 INT last year.
Ohio State OT Isaiah Prince vs. TCU DE Ben Banogu: If you can take your eyes away from the ball, this will be a great matchup to watch in arguably this week’s biggest Power-5 matchup.
Troy CB Blace Brown vs. Nebraska WR Stanley Morgan Jr.: This will be a good one-on-one matchup on the perimeter between the Sun Belt’s most instinctive and productive corner and Nebraska’s top playmaker.
San Jose State vs. Oregon: TE Josh Oliver has a big opportunity to showcase his NFL potential against Oregon’s edge duo of Jalen Jelks and Justin Hollins.
USC Offensive Line vs. Texas Defensive Line: Lots of Senior Bowl Watch List prospects on the field in Austin! USC OL Chuma Edoga, Chris Brown, Toa Lobendahn, and TE Tyler Petite will have their hands full dealing with Texas DL Charles Omenihu and Breckyn Hager.
LSU OG Garrett Brumfield vs. Auburn DT Dontavius Russell: Another good interior matchup. When Russell comes off the ball and strikes blocks he is difficult to handle. This will be a good test of Brumfield’s POA power and anchor.
SMU OT Nick Natour vs. Michigan DE Chase Winovich: It will be an all-day battle for the athletic Natour because Winovich’s motor never stops.
Wisconsin OL Beau Benzschawel and Michael Dieter vs. BYU DL Corbin Kaufusi: Benzschawel and Dieter are the next in a long lineage of Wisconsin blockers. It will be interesting to see how they handle the long and athletic Kaufusi.
WHAT I’M WATCHING THIS WEEKEND…
No. 5 Oklahoma at Iowa State, noon ET (ABC): The Cyclones were 31-point underdogs last year when they upset the Sooners in Norman, 38-31. This will be a revenge game for Oklahoma, with a new quarterback, Heisman candidate Kyler Murray, leading the charge. Iowa State’s head coach Matt Campbell is considered a rising star in the coaching ranks.
No. 12 LSU at No. 7 Auburn, 3:30 ET (CBS): These SEC West foes have split their last four matchups, so this will be an intense game. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, an Ohio State transfer, hasn’t been that impressive in two games this season. He has yet to throw an interception, but he’s only completing 47% of his passes and the offense didn’t perform like it should against SE Louisiana last week. That unit needs to be on-point against a tough Auburn defense.
COLLEGE IS FUN
Miami’s turnover chain became famous last season, but they’ve been outdone. Boise State has a turnover throne. Literally sitting on the sideline. If you make a pick, you get to be Crown Prince of Picks for a moment in the throne…
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