Prior to the 2017 season, Notre Dame sophomore cornerback Julian Love outlined at least two individual goals to accomplish.
One, as the starting field corner at the beginning of the season, he wanted to surpass his 45 tackles (eighth on the team) as the team’s top freshman the previous year. Second, he wanted to get more than the one interception he did as a rookie.
Both were achieved while starting all 12 games, with his 62 tackles placing fifth (and first among non-linebackers) and his three interceptions pacing the team.
Furthermore, he tied a Notre Dame record as the eighth player to return two of the picks for a score in the same season in victories against 9-3 Michigan State and 8-4 North Carolina State, and his 153 yards in returns were the second most in one season by an Irish player, behind only All-America Nick Rassas’ 197 in 1965.
However, what if he would have been told in August that his passes broken up total (17) and passes defensed (20, the 17 breakups plus three interceptions) this season would set new school records?
“I would say that I believe it,” replied Love, who earned second-team All-America notice from Sports Illustrated for his efforts. “I worked hard and knew I was going to get a lot of chances, and I knew I was confident. I wasn’t playing nervous, where I was playing not to get beat rather than playing to win.
“My approach was there for this year. I don’t know about second in the country, but I knew it would be a better stat line than last year.”
In 2016 Love tied for third on the team in passes broken up with a modest three, while fellow freshman Donte Vaughn tied senior Cole Luke for the most with six — in nearly half the amount of snaps played by Love.
The 20 passes defensed by Love this year tied him for second place nationally, behind only Iowa junior Joshua Jackson’s 25. It also broke the single season Notre Dame record of 17 first set by sophomore Clarence Ellis in 1969 (13 passes broken up, four interceptions) and matched by freshman Luther Bradley for the 1973 national champs (11 passes broken up, six interceptions). Both did it in 10 games.
The 17 passes broken up likewise eclipsed Ellis’ 48-year standard of 13.
There is far more passing in today’s football than from four and five decades ago, but that alone does not explain Love’s exceptional campaign.
At 5-11, 193 pounds, he possesses neither the imposing or rangier frame of the nearly 6-3, 206 pound Vaughn nor the 6-1, 207-pound senior Nick Watkins, who began the season at the more physical boundary corner spot and broke up eight passes, second on the team.
Love also is not a former sprint champion in his region or state like classmate Troy Pride Jr. or junior Shaun Crawford.
Rather he is an amalgamation of those two physical characteristics and combines it with supreme fundamentals, instincts and football savvy to be the standout in the entire secondary, be it corner or safety.
“He’s capable of playing safety, but he’s our best corner,” said head coach Brian Kelly of using him effectively at safety versus Navy’s triple-option attack in which Love recorded a game high 10 solo tackles, and 14 overall. “If we could clone him, I would like to do that.”
One of the team’s best tacklers, which is why he started at the open-end of the field, Love soon found himself playing at boundary corner, where his opportunities expanded.
“I am targeted a lot,” explained Love of how he gets so many pass breakups. “I’m often in the boundary so there are a lot of quick-action throws, a lot of bigger receivers there — a lot of their better receivers there. They want to get their better guy touches and then they look at me, I’m pretty normal-sized, I think. They want to try to exploit me, so I have a lot of opportunities to be challenged.”
Still, one has to make the plays, and that’s where instincts factor into Love’s skill set.
“It’s watching a lot of film with Coach (Todd) Lyght and Coach (Mike) Elko, and just being ready, knowing what I’m waiting for,” Love said. “I’m baiting quarterbacks to make certain throws so I can get my hands on it. That’s something I really try to get reps on and [see on] film, and it works, I guess.”
A two-way Chicagoland standout while leading Nazareth Academy to consecutive 5A Illinois state titles his last two seasons, Love won’t be facing a pass-happy LSU attack in the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl. The Tigers average a relatively modest 22.3 passes per game and are 85th in passing yards per contest (201.3), which is still higher than Notre Dame’s No. 103 rating (175.8).
Both LSU and the Irish have only one receiver who has caught at least 30 passes. Equanimeous St. Brown has 31 for the Irish with four touchdowns, and the next three top Irish pass catchers have been ruled out of the game either because of an injury (Chase Claypool) or suspensions (Kevin Stepherson and Alize Mack).
In the practices prior to leaving for Christmas break, Love singled out junior Miles Boykin and freshman Michael Young as players who might be able to compensate for the Irish at receiver.
“They both have different traits,” Love said. “(Young is) really fast. He has a really quick twitch. He’s not that big relative to Miles but he’s tough. If he gets hit he’ll get back up and he’ll keep coming back.”
On LSU’s side, the top threat is 6-4, 198-pound senior DJ Clark, whose 35 catches average a notable 23.2 yards and include three touchdowns. Clark and Love will likely get to know each other well during the contest.
Nevertheless, both teams center their identity on a physical ground attack to set the table, and Love is not one to shy away from contact.
“They’ll be physical, they’re very aggressive, and so we have to match that,” he said of LSU. “We’re not going to be pushed around. We’re going to attack and just be resilient in effort.”
Love conceded that the Irish team was collectively “pretty drained” the week before the regular season finale at Stanford, but said this month’s practice resembled the summer workouts when hunger to atone for last year was vast.
With today’s Playoff system, bowl games more often are referred to as meaningless, but Love disagrees. Getting to 10 wins this year for a potential top-10 final ranking — which would be only the third time that happened at Notre Dame since 1994 — is of paramount importance to Love and his teammates.
“We’re real hungry,” Love said. “We had the chance the past couple of weeks to rest because we were off most of that time, so now we’re rejuvenated and we can just attack this game. We’re just getting back to a full flow of being aggressive on defense.”