Julian Love, Notre Dame Possess Unanimous Determination
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Last week, junior cornerback Julian Love barely missed becoming only the 35th unanimous All-American in Notre Dame football annals (with offensive guard Quenton Nelson the most recent). Yet, as with everything else, the ultra-amiable and upbeat 102nd consensus All-American (with 86 different players) at the school took it in stride.
Quite fitting for someone who habitually stays stride for stride with receivers like few others in the college game.
Honored as a first-team All-American by the Associated Press, the Walter Camp Foundation, the Football Writers Association of America and Sporting News, Love missed the unanimous distinction when the final piece — American Football Coaches Association — had him on the second team.
Only two other Fighting Irish cornerbacks achieved the unanimous distinction: Shane Walton in 2002 and Todd Lyght — Love’s position coach — in 1989. Lyght is also one of only 16 Notre Dame players to earn two-time consensus All-America notice.
“That’s definitely a trap,” reflected a typically smiling Love on his near miss. “But then you take a step back, you realize I wasn’t a first-team All-American in anything last year. Just realize what you have and don’t realize what you could have. After that, I’m extremely proud and happy because that’s huge. My family is so excited.
“I’m not a big guy to have that kind of chip on my shoulder in terms of, ‘Oh, let’s prove them wrong.’ I know what I am.”
Such wisdom and comfort in his own skin began to take greater root this past spring after his 2017 campaign as a sophomore when Love shattered the Notre Dame single-season record for passes broken up in a season with 20, surpassing Clarence Ellis’ mark of 13 set way back in 1969. Love also returned two of his three interceptions for crucial touchdowns in wins over Michigan State and North Carolina State.
Thus, this past spring he fell into a trap where he believed that in order to become an All-American he had to achieve even more statistically.
“There’s a lot of pressure when you are a record holder of some sort: ‘I gotta do better, I gotta do more,’” Love said.
He started to believe that any pass caught on him was a demerit, and if he didn’t register more interceptions, he would not be recognized. What Love didn’t appreciate was how much his presence positively affected the overall defense and negatively impacted the opponent beyond just the raw individual numbers. Team defense and collaboration is not always reflected in individual stats, especially premier cornerbacks whom opposing quarterbacks often try to avoid. Still, Love broke up 15 more passes again playing boundary corner, which broke the previous 1969 standard again.
Lyght, along with head coach Brian Kelly, Love’s high school coach, Tim Racki, at Nazareth Academy, and teammates all had to reassure Love to look beyond the numbers, and the accolades will come on their own.
After all, even Lyght didn’t intercept a single pass during the 1988 national title season when he was a starting corner, and he had only two picks as a senior in 1990. One of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the nation’s top defensive back, Love saw Georgia’s Deandre Baker receive the honor despite having fewer passes broken up and tackles, and only one more interception (two to one). That reaffirmed to Love that impact is about far more than data.
“That was affecting me for sure in the spring,” Love admitted. “My teammates, especially the secondary, helped me in the offseason [telling me], ‘Dude, everybody has a pass caught on him.’ That changed my mindset.
“Through the spring I was worrying about the wrong things. It’s about doing the right things, keep with the process, your teammates have your back and you have theirs.”
Especially gratifying to Love has been the overall growth on defense since the 4-8 debacle in 2016 in which he started eight games as a freshman while displaying exceptional and advanced fundamentals, football IQ and versatility as a corner, nickel and — versus the triple option — safety.
He is now the headline performer of a pass efficiency defense that ranks third in the country, the highest ever at Notre Dame since the NCAA first began tracking the stat in the early 1990s because “passing yards defense” was often a ridiculously misleading figure on how to judge overall pass defense effectiveness.
“We had certain pieces two years ago, a little more pieces last year [10-3 finish] and now everything has come together,” Love said of the defense. “It’s all been building up to this, and I think we see that week in and week out.
“If some level is at a disadvantage the other levels are picking it up, and that’s how good defenses work.”
The addition of junior safety Alohi Gilman, who sat out last season after transferring from Navy, added an edge to the defensive backfield that was needed, per Love, whose leadership also blossomed.
“I knew he was special,” Love said of Gilman. “Having him adds cohesiveness to the back end. We work really well together. I love the way he attacks, and that’s kind of what I’m about.
“You can do a million things wrong on a play, but if you’re aggressive to it, it’s okay in my book. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, he leads and he’s that outspoken guy that we needed.”
Although he has put his name into the early evaluation for the NFL Draft, Love said he has taken a step back from the process to devote all his attention on the College Football Playoff showdown with Clemson in the Cotton Bowl Dec. 29. What especially impresses him about the Tigers is their competitiveness.
“A team that’s talented but also gritty,” Love said of Clemson, which also describes himself. “They play with that will to keep going and the will to compete.
“Not many teams as talented as them do that. It will be a good test and a good battle for us.”
When asked if Tigers freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence can be rattled, Love remained diplomatic.
“With pressure, sure. … It’s a big moment, a big stage, and he’s handled himself so well this whole year,” he replied. “But we’re going to do what we do and make him earn it and really make him think every play.
“I don’t know if it will rattle him, but definitely make him think about it.”
Never in its 37-year bowl history has Notre Dame been a bigger underdog — as much as 13.5 points so far — but that helps fuel the fire for the Irish, even though they won’t engage much in the pre-game hype.
“People love to talk,” Love said. “Nothing matters in any of that except for the guys who play on the field. That’s the beauty of the game. People can speculate and talk all they want, but it doesn’t affect the game at all. I think we don’t really care. We know what people are seeing us as, seeing this matchup as, but we take full advantage of that and we’ll do what we do, what we have done all year, and just compete to the best of our abilities.
“People week in and week out say, ‘Oh, but this could be the week of the [Notre Dame] upset.’ Obviously that hasn’t happened because we’re a complete, tough team and we’re going to show that the 29th.
“Every offense was highly touted or was the mismatch or disadvantage for us. I think we’re going to do the job, run to the ball, play with a tremendous effort, create turnovers and that’s going to help us win the game.”