PALO ALTO, Calif. — Over the past 12 years, Stanford has gone from the outhouse to the penthouse in the Pac-12 by recruiting the rarest of things in today’s college football landscape — big, strong offensive linemen who can mash teams in an old-school, pro-style offense.
Year after year, the biggest beneficiaries of that have been the running backs. From Toby Gerhart to Stepfan Taylor to Christian McCaffrey, there has been no shortage of backs who have enjoyed tremendous success behind the Cardinal’s well-coached front.
The latest to enjoy the fruits of their labor is running back Bryce Love, who opted to return for his senior season after rushing for a ridiculous 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns on 263 carries in 2017.
The decision to return was curious on the surface, considering top running backs always declare for the draft as soon as they can because of the wear-and-tear of the position, and Love was actually banged up last season with multiple nagging issues.
But some NFL scouts weren’t as surprised, as last year’s crop of running backs was strong, and Love — who is generally listed at 5-foot-10 (he might be closer to 5-foot-8) and 202 pounds — has some things he needs to work on before he gets to the NFL, some of which was on display during the Cardinal’s impressive 17-3 victory over Southern California on Saturday at Stanford Stadium.
But first, the good. Love was impressive in his usual ways. After a blitz-heavy San Diego State defense corralled him the week before, limiting Love to only 29 yards on eight carries by stacking the box, Love exploded for 136 yards and a touchdown against the Trojans. USC also opened the game by stacking the box but eventually allowed Love to break loose when it stopped doing so as much.
“We know we just have to give him a crease,” sophomore tight end Colby Parkinson said.
Love seemed to get stronger as the game went on, showing comfort as both a zone- and gap-runner who runs with strength for his stature. He has the speed to take it the distance, sure, but more important, he regularly makes the first defender miss — a key for any NFL running back. Love also flashed a strong stiff arm and the ability to run with patience and tempo, which should translate to the next level.
“An explosive runner,” one scout told Yahoo Sports. “Very good speed and contact balance.”
Another scout pegged Love as a second- or third-round pick last season, and it’s clear that for Love to elevate himself into the first-round discussion, he’ll need to do two things.
First, like every potential first-round pick, he’ll need to prove his athleticism in drills and tests during the pre-draft process. Teams want to take players with both elite physical traits and tape in the first round, a philosophy that is generally thought to lower bust potential with those picks. If you’re a great player on tape with only good athleticism and measurables, that’s typically a ticket for the second round (see: UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks in 2015).
But secondly, he will also need to prove he can be a factor as a receiver, as he caught only six passes last season and a grand total of 20 during his entire prep career as a star at Wake Forest High School in North Carolina.
“Wish you saw more [from him] in the pass game,” one scout admitted.
The trend continued Saturday, when Love often came off the field against USC in third-and-long situations. When he did function as a receiver, he was primarily used as a blocker who leaked out of the backfield as a safety outlet when he was clear of a blitz threat, which is rudimentary stuff in today’s NFL, where running backs must be a receiving threat to take advantage of the new offense-friendly rules.
There is good news for Love, though. His pass-game issues don’t really extend to pass protection, where he showed a willingness to throw his body in front of defenders multiple times on Saturday night.
“He’ll block,” a scout said, “he’s just smaller.”
Love’s football character is strong, and that will help him. A team captain for the Cardinal, there’s already a belief that he could do whatever is necessary to shore up his deficiencies.
“He’s an awesome kid,” a scout said. “Super dialed in.”
And again, that seemed to play out this offseason, if you believe Stanford’s junior quarterback K.J. Costello.
Costello — who is quickly emerging as an NFL prospect in his own right in his first full year as the starter — said Love has religiously worked on his comfort in the pass game for months.
“That was his main focus this offseason,” Costello said. “It’s a timing thing, a feel thing and a trust thing and he’s developed quite a bit as a receiver. His routes are getting better, and his hands have always been good — it’s more about understanding how to play as a wide receiver.”
In the meantime, however, Love needs to focus on being healthy, as Stanford announced Tuesday that he will not play Saturday against UC Davis due to an undisclosed injury he suffered during the USC game. Shaw said afterward that Love could have returned to the game if he was needed, which would appear to indicate that it’s not that serious.
Regardless, expect Love’s injury history to be something scouts dive into heavily once the pre-draft process kicks into high gear in January, due to his size. If he fails to go as high as his production would indicate, that — plus his short track record as a receiving threat — will be why, since there’s little doubt he is a tantalizing prospect when he’s right.
“He’s clearly a playmaker,” one scout said.
The big fella who caught my eye
Before we get to a scouting rundown of the other top prospects I watched closely during Saturday’s game, I want to take a moment to recognize Nate Herbig, Stanford’s junior right guard.
He’s a massive man listed at 6-foot-4 and 334 pounds (he probably hovers around 350), and he’s a powerful run blocker with good movement and a nasty temperament.
Late in the game, when USC knew Stanford was going to run the ball, he was still consistently generating movement at the point of attack and even pancaking guys, which is difficult to do.
While Herbig’s play was a pleasant surprise, the gleam in the eye of his teammates — who couldn’t wait to gush about Nate when I asked them about him afterward — told me a lot.
“He takes pride in his job … his ability to move is incredible, and his combination of movement and strength [is special], so is his knowledge of the game,” quarterback K.J. Costello said. “He can read fronts, he can read coverages.”
Parkinson was even more effusive, adding that Herbig has a passion for the game he’s never seen before.
“He’s a baller — he loves football more than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Parkinson said. “He loves to get after it … we’ll be in pass-protection meetings and he knows what each player’s doing. He’s very intelligent when it comes to football, and he never stops. Anything coming his way, you know he’s gonna put some dude on his back.”
Herbig needs to improve his technique in pass protection, but I’ll be keeping an eye on this guy going forward because road-grading guards are hard to find these days, and Herbig might fit the bill, provided he continues to impress.
Here are some other thoughts on potential 2019 NFL draft prospects during an awesome night in Palo Alto:
*No. 3 QB K.J. Costello, 6-5, 215, junior: Team captain. Big, pro-style quarterback who looks the part. Overtook Keller Chryst as the starter last season and threw for 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. Accuracy has improved since last year, and he threw some nice balls Saturday. Big pro-style quarterbacks are hard to find, and teams still want them, despite the widespread shift to more spread concepts in the NFL.
*No. 1 WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, 6-3, 225, redshirt junior: Team captain. Scouts in the press box seemed mighty interested when Arcega-Whiteside briefly left the game late in the second quarter, with a few even rising to their feet with binoculars to get a better look at him. A big-body receiver with adequate burst to create separation, he’s off to a great start this season (10 catches, 288 yards, three touchdowns).
*No. 82 TE Kaden Smith, 6-5, 252, junior: Attached tight end with a nice, projectable frame who actually blocks, a rarity for a tight end these days.
*No. 20 WILL Bobby Okereke, 6-3, 234, fifth-year senior: Team captain. Has some juice going forward; light on his feet and moves well. Has some range in pass coverage that should be attractive to some teams but must keep working on his ability to stack and shed offensive linemen vs. the run.
*No. 45 EDGE Porter Gustin, 6-5, 260, senior: Team captain. Rushed from the left and right side against Stanford. Strong hands — has some initial pop — and disciplined eyes; reliable edge-setter who doesn’t get fooled easily. Occasionally lines up as a traditional second-level linebacker. As a pass rusher, he needs to keep developing his pass-rush plan.
*No. 89 DE Christian Rector, 6-4, 275, redshirt junior: Fires off the ball. Strong hands, long arms. Very clearly is physically gifted and potentially scheme-versatile on the next level but he’s been relatively quiet through the first two games (three tackles, zero sacks).
*No. 35 ILB Cam Smith, 6-2, 250, senior: Team captain. Occasionally rushes off the edge. Has a really good burst going forward. Plays with good eyes; he is never in a hurry and doesn’t get fooled easily. Not a killer athlete but is a good football player who does a nice job sifting through trash and also shows the ability to take on offensive linemen vs. the run. Directs traffic well.
*No. 8 CB Iman Marshall, 6-1, 205, senior: Willing, physical tackler who recorded six stops on Saturday. Can help himself as a draft prospect by running fast and improving his ball production (all six of his career interceptions came as a freshman or sophomore).
*#7 S Marvell Tell III, 6-3, 195, senior: Team captain. Smooth, rangy one-high type who can cover a lot of ground. Threw his body around Saturday.
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