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“You ask my wife and kids, and there’s not a better person on the planet to them than Jordan Love,” Sanford Jr. said. “That’s a real thing.”
The Sanfords had only one year with Love, his final college season at Utah State. By most measures, it was a tough year for the Aggies and Love, who slid from a 39-touchdown 2018 season to an FBS-leading 17 interceptions in 2019. The team fell from an 11-2 record, a top-25 ranking and a bowl game blowout win to a 7-6 mark in 2019 and a bowl loss.
Sanford was Utah State’s offensive coordinator that season, and he regrets how many were hung up on Love’s middling and sometimes poor statistics. He saw firsthand what made Love a first-round NFL draft pick, and it wasn’t just the QB’s incredible physical skills and occasional flashes of Mahomesian ability.
For Sanford, it was as much about who Love was — especially during some tough times.
“We used to have these team movie nights, and [Gunnar] would come to those. He and Jordan would sit together and share popcorn,” Sanford said. “That’s his guy.”
When the 2020 draft rolled around, the Sanfords had moved 1,100 miles away, with Mike taking the University of Minnesota’s offensive coordinator position. Gunnar’s connection with Love didn't fade.
“On draft night when Gunnar saw the Packers were taking [Love], since that moment he’s been a diehard Packers fan,” Sanford said. “We’re here in Minneapolis — heart of Vikings country — and my son is decked out in his bootleg Packers Jordan Love jersey.
“Like, he never takes it off. He’ll even wear it to church.”
There’s a lot of praying going on in Packers country, too. Fans of the team are watching the drama play out with 2020 MVP Aaron Rodgers holding out of mandatory minicamps — the first time he’s done that in his 16-year career — and appearing to be dug in on his stance of not wanting to play anymore for the only NFL team he has known.
Meanwhile, the Packers’ faithful have no choice but to hope for something special in Love to emerge. The fact he did basically nothing in a rookie year that featured no preseason and saw him sit third on the depth chart behind Rodgers and Tim Boyle adds a layer of nerves.
What makes it even tougher: Packers fans have been blessed by quarterback royalty — first Brett Favre, then Rodgers — these past 29 years, seldom with interruption. By nature, Love will be held to a standard far higher than the expectations would be with almost any other team. Packers fans know QB greatness, and if Rodgers is truly done in Green Bay, that’s the high bar that has been set for Love as he steams closer to his first real NFL snaps.
Sanford says they’ll come around eventually on his former protégé.
“Remember when people were freaking out on the Packers and Aaron Rodgers did the R-E-L-A-X thing?” Sanford told Yahoo Sports. “Like, I really think there’s some of that in [Love]. Knowing what I know, this kid is not just going to be fine. He’s going to be special."
Jordan Love getting thrown into the fire
“People are going to judge my improvement and maturation when I’m in a live game situation,” the 23-year-old Packers quarterback said, “but I feel like every rep I’m taking in practice, I’m really just working on different things every day, just trying to be aware of the things I need to improve on.”
No, Jordan Love did not say this in 2021. Rodgers said it in 2007, days prior to what would be, at that point, his most extensive regular-season action in the NFL.
Rodgers waited what now feels like a football lifetime, nearly three years, for his chance to prove the Packers were right for using a first-round draft pick on him. And when Rodgers got his chance, he eventually won everyone over with his play.
Love's current status is strangely similar. The parallels of the Rodgers-Favre and Love-Rodgers situations have been rehashed ad nauseam, yet there might be a need now for Love to remember just how long Rodgers’ elevation took. He saw mop-up duty, 188 preseason pass attempts and four offseason programs before ever starting a game.
If Rodgers isn't back before camp, Love's timetable will be vastly shorter than Rodgers' was.
“Last year was such a lost year for him,” said Sanford, who speaks to Love almost weekly. “I think that’s why this is even more of a controversy. He didn’t even really get a chance to get any practice reps — like, ever. Literally, he played no preseason games and lacked that typical progression you’d expect.
“So there’s always so much more to the story. If he’s the guy this year, people have to realize: He’s basically a rookie, but maybe even less than a rookie because he went through this really awkward year where he did nothing. It’s a really weird dynamic.”
Love’s performance Tuesday at Packers minicamp can be summed up by those who witnessed it as inconsistent. With Rodgers not there, Love received the bulk of the No. 1 snaps. He reportedly misfired on several passes and struggled in his one crack running the two-minute drill.
The Packers seem to understand that there’s a lot of catch-up being played right now, roughly 40 days from the start of training camp, 65 days from the first preseason game and less than 100 days from Week 1.
"He needs every rep he can get right now," Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said. "He's a young quarterback that was not afforded a preseason last year, and so we'll give him as many as he can handle.
“We'll spell him every now and again, but I just think every rep that he takes is so valuable, and he can learn something from both the good and the bad."
While the bad was on display Tuesday, Wednesday reportedly brought far more good.
Love told reporters, "I was drafted here to play quarterback, so I'll definitely be ready Week 1."
Said Sanford: "It's going to be a process, some ups and downs, but I'd be shocked if he doesn't succeed eventually."
From a skinny kid to a bread-shouldered leader
Matt Wells was Love’s first college head coach at Utah State, recruiting him out of high school and giving him what ended up being his only FBS offer. Wells saw a “very skinny, very athletic” recruit who stood about 6-foot-2 and 170 pounds when he arrived on campus. (He's now 6-4 and 225.)
What became obvious, Wells said, was that Love had “just a natural throwing motion. Little wasted motion. Fluid. But it was his ability to throw on the run, into stress, with different arm angles — and still being able to maintain his accuracy and arm strength.”
After a redshirt year in 2016, Love took over the starting job down the stretch in 2017 for the Aggies and broke out in 2018. His statistical leap: an 8-6 TD-INT ratio in ‘17 to 32-6 in 2018, plus a nearly 10-point jump in Love’s completion percentage ( 54.9 to 64).
His progress also could be measured in less obvious ways, but visible mostly to Wells and his staff. They frequently ran a naked rollout play during the 2018 season that’s schematically similar to one found in the playbook of San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan (albeit with a slightly different progression).
In the Aggies’ near-upset of Michigan State in East Lansing, Love ran the play effectively, hitting his second read (the over route) for a 28-yard gain on third-and-3. That was good.
Later in the season, Love hit his third read on the play to the deep comeback — a harder throw and further along in the progression.
That wasn't all.
“A few weeks later on that same play, he actually got flushed, planted and threw the post on the back side, which was technically No. 4 in that progression,” Wells said. “He couldn’t do that without knowing the post-snap reads down cold and seeing how the secondary rotates, which dictates the read.”
For Wells, it wasn’t all just about Love grinding his way to the last possible read. It was knowing when to take that approach and when to speed the process up.
That was part of what Wells told Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst when the two spoke on Love. Wells and Gutekunst go way back, but it was notable to Wells that when Gutekunst first called on his quarterback midseason that year. Even after Wells accepted the head coaching job at Texas Tech that winter, Gutekunst made the trip to Lubbock to double back. The Packers GM was there to see Texas Tech linebacker Jordyn Brooks' pro day but also to ask Wells again about Love.
“I didn’t have to sell Jordan Love to [Gutekunst],” Wells said. “I just got to tell a story and what makes [Love] tick. That’s all I did. I definitely didn’t sell them on him. Those of us that have been with him since the jump just know that the man behind the facemask is an even better man than even the quarterback.”
Green Bay traded up four slots in the first round less than a month later to take Love with the 26th overall pick, two spots after where Rodgers was taken in 2005. In doing so, the Packers might have set off an already testy Rodgers, who reportedly never let go of the team's past perceived slights — such as cutting little-used wide receiver Jake Kumerow, plus making various coaching and personnel decisions without his input — and viewed the Love pick as the final straw.
Interestingly, sources close to Love say that he and Rodgers get along fine despite an age gap and the brewing tension with the team. With that tension now boiled over, Love’s ascension and growth have been thrust to the forefront.
Sanford says Love's natural leadership will carry him through the process.
"One thing that those guys are going to see as time transpires, Jordan is loved by his teammates," he said. "Every type of teammate, too. You could have the completely ornery ‘Mike’ linebacker, the minus-personality lineman, they’re all going to equally love Jordan. I can attest to that; I saw that firsthand. ...
"Once they start working closely with Jordan and get to see his personality, he is a natural gravitator of people. He’s a great person. He’s so confident. And so humble."
Sanford said Kamal Martin, a current Packers linebacker who played for Sanford in college, told him Love was one of his favorite people he'd ever met.
The real test will be how he handles the pro game, and that could be closer than anyone expected.
The trick with Jordan Love: not holding him back
Love’s best traits are his rare physical skills and, both coaches say, his sky-high confidence that he can make the big plays in crunch time. The problem: It’s not always pretty or textbook.
Love’s evaluation was similar to the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen, who had some facepalm plays at Wyoming, but also enough high-end throws to dazzle scouts at least a handful of plays per game.
Wells’ approach was to teach Love the bread and butter of the Aggies' offense and not harness him too much, allowing him to learn through his mistakes.
“You give him that ‘why’ on each concept,” Wells said, “but if he colors outside the lines a little bit, that’s OK, too. I think he’s got incredible ability, confidence that oozes, and you just want him to feel confident to throw that ball into a tight window when he sees that chance.
“More often than not, he’s going to be able to get it in there. And if not, he learns through his mistakes on those plays. As long as he doesn’t let those mistakes hurt his self-progress, he’s going to be fine.”
Sanford arrived after Wells left and saw Love’s rare traits, a player who made throws from a multitude of arm slots, from bad platforms, throwing across his body and on the run.
“Even behind his back,” Sanford said with a laugh.
It reminded Sanford a lot of the throws Patrick Mahomes was making in what would be his MVP season. That taught Sanford, who had coached passers such as Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan, an important lesson: Mechanics and fundamentals are important, but there are some quarterbacks who are built differently.
Love was exactly that.
“I had to come to grips over the time I was with him,” Sanford said. “I just wanted to give him every tool to help him grow [into] being a trained quarterback. ... But I found out that I have to let him be him. It was the combination of those two things where I started to see where his sweet spot is.”
That’s the challenge facing LaFleur and the Packers: finding Love’s sweet spot while also getting him potentially ready to supplant a legend in a few months.
Sanford says Love is in “the right place in Green Bay” and will deal with the ups and downs just fine.
“He’s ready for whatever situation comes his way," Sanford said. "He’s a young man who has dealt with a lot in his life with such grace and dignity, humility and also strength.
“There’s nothing, in my opinion, that can’t be put on that young man that he can’t handle.”
When the time comes for Love to be the Packers’ starter, Mike and Gunnar Sanford likely will be grabbing their popcorn in honor of Love and sitting down in front of the TV to see what happens. Even if the timeline might be sped up quite a bit.
“I am excited for that moment,” Sanford said. “My desire is, I want it to be the right timing. I don’t know when that is. It might be now, it might be next year, who knows? But I just want him to be able to prepare for a full season.
“That’s when you’ll see the real Jordan Love shine.”
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