Stanford’s Bryce Love: the human biology major who dissects defenses

Stanford running back Bryce Love (20) carries on a 15-yard touchdown run against Texas Christian in the Valero Alamo Bowl at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, on December 28, 2017. (Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)

Credit: Rodger Mallison

Credit: Rodger Mallison

Stanford running back Bryce Love (20) carries on a 15-yard touchdown run against Texas Christian in the Valero Alamo Bowl at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, on December 28, 2017. (Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)

Rocky Long and his San Diego State coaching staff are staying up late at night staring at film of Stanford running back Bryce Love — again — in a darkened room ahead of Friday night’s season opener, playing, pausing, rewinding, dropping their jaws, shaking their heads, shuddering, because of what happened 16 years ago in Wake Forest, N.C.

Two things did.

The first was that 5-year-old Bryce joined a flag football league, broke through the line for the first time, outran everybody to the end zone and, in the words of his father, “he was hooked.”

The second is that he contracted pneumonia a few months later.

“I just remember feeling really, really sick, and my mom taking care of me, then having to go to the hospital and getting IVs and antibiotics,” Love says. “At the end of the day, I remember feeling better. I credit my mom for that, and the doctors.

“In my mind, they were like superheroes looking out for me.”

And what kid doesn’t want to be a superhero?

So when it came time for Love to make a decision about his football career last spring, whether to return to Stanford for his senior season or enter the NFL draft after finishing second in Heisman Trophy balloting, he opted to … stay?

And take a full load of classes toward a degree in human biology with a concentration in child and adolescent development? And try to graduate in December, after 31/3 years at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities?

And make no money while risking career-ending injury?

Love wants to play in the NFL. He has been watching NFL Films with his father so much that, as he wrote in a recent Sports Illustrated essay, “it felt like Steve Sabol’s baritone voice was narrating my own childhood.”

He also wants to be a pediatrician. He thought he might have outgrown that childhood dream after taking some science classes at Stanford and was more interested in stem-cell research and therapy. But he has come to realize that, no, he cares about kids, cares about kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods back home and wants to make a difference in lives beyond carrying an oblong leather ball into painted end zones while everyone chases him.

“It’s what I feel like what I want to do at the end of the day,” Love says. “I’m definitely passionate about it.”

And just as he can gaze ahead on the field and see defenses shifting, he looked forward in his life and evaluated the possibilities before deciding which way to cut. He could depart for the NFL last spring, probably make $3 million per year and just deal with “hum bio” later. But completing his undergraduate degree after an NFL career and then going to medical school added a layer of unnecessary complication.

“Taking a longer view,” Love calls it.

“Now, hopefully after a long NFL career, he applies to med school and makes a quicker transition,” Stanford coach David Shaw says. “For him, it was a priority for him to finish academically while he’s here and then focus on playing football for as long as he can play, then go to his next love, which is to be a doctor and to help people.”

Quick transitions being one of his strengths.

Love came to Stanford as maybe the fleetest running back in North Carolina or any other state, still holding USA Track & Field national 12-and-under records in the 100 (11.64 seconds) and 400 meters (50.75) while rushing for a staggering 5,372 yards and 71 touchdowns at Wake Forest High. That hasn’t changed. What has is his vision, and patience — able to wait for holes to open from Stanford’s massive offensive line and then dart through them into open field. He doesn’t just outrun people anymore.

Love learned that from Christian McCaffrey, the Heisman Trophy runner-up he played behind in his first two seasons before becoming the Cardinal’s featured back. As unstoppable as he was before badly injuring his left ankle midway through the season — rushing for a school-record 301 yards against Arizona State a week after scorching UCLA for 263 — he might have been more impressive on one leg, somehow averaging 121.8 yards per game.

He still finished the season at 8.05 yards per carry and with 13 touchdown runs of 50-plus yards, both FBS records. His 2,118 yards makes him only the second draft-eligible FBS player to return to school after rushing for 2,000, joining Northwestern’s Damien Anderson from 18 years earlier.

“I’ve been lucky enough over the last couple years to watch a whole bunch of good running backs,” says SDSU’s Long, who had the last two NCAA rushing leaders in Donnel Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny. “They all understand where the play is supposed to go, but they know who to look at that prevents the play from going that way so they take it somewhere else. Then when they find a seam or a hole, they accelerate through it. And once they get into the open field, they can make a one-on-one tackler miss every time.”

How do you scheme against that?

“You want the truth? You do not,” Long says. “If he was a wide receiver, you could game plan to take him away. All you have to do is double team him. Underneath, over the top, outside, inside, you can take him away. You cannot take a great running back away.”

Offensive play-callers can, though, and a year ago Love had a mere 13 carries in SDSU’s 20-17 upset of Stanford at SDCCU Stadium, partly because the Cardinal ran just 43 plays. He still managed 184 yards and two touchdowns, but Shaw opted to have Keller Chryst — ultimately benched later in the season in favor of K.J. Costello — throw 20 passes, two of which were intercepted.

Love is not the versatile back McCaffrey was, catching just six passes all last year. But he has worked on his routes and pass protections in the offseason, while reportedly gaining 10 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame to 202.

Shaw has hinted they might use him in more ways than pitch left or pitch right, with practically the entire starting offense back. The Cardinal also has a new offensive coordinator in 31-year-old Tavita Pritchard.

Then again, Shaw is still the head coach and still calls the plays.

Wrote the San Francisco Chronicle’s Tom FitzGerald: “Some Stanford fans would love to see Shaw open up the offense and shed his conservative approach, especially now that he has a boatload of offensive weapons. That’s like asking Santa to ditch the sled and deliver toys from the Starship Enterprise.”

Love enters the season as the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. History, however, says he won’t.

Only four players have gone from Heisman runner-up to winner the following year, none since Georgia’s Herschel Walker in 1982. And 15 of the 18 winners in the 2000s have been quarterbacks. McCaffrey, after being second in 2015, finished ninth in 2016.

But talk to Love for any length of time, and you quickly realize that individual accolades don’t drive him, that the huge billboard on the edge of campus with his picture embarrasses him.

He says things like: “My mindset is being the best teammate and best player I can be for the team.”

And: “I like to think there’s no such thing as an individual accomplishment. It would be reflective of my team.”

And: “I love the bonds that I’ve formed with my teammates, my brothers — it’s what makes football so pure.”

And, as he did to ESPN: “The professors around campus who created their field — those are the celebrities.”

He talks about “unfinished business,” which most people assume references a Stanford team that lost in the Pac-12 championship game last season. It also encompasses the remaining coursework necessary to complete his degree two quarters early.

It meant taking such a demanding summer course load that he skipped Pac-12 media day last month in Los Angeles, Skyping in for interviews instead. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports called it a “dangerous precedent” and “a bad look” for the conference.

Love, according to Stanford officials, had already used the lone excused absence for summer school. He didn’t want to miss again.

“When he did come back (for his senior year), two things were guaranteed,” Shaw says. “No. 1, he’s going to be the most requested athlete for interviews in the nation, so we can’t say yes to everything. No. 2, whatever he does or doesn’t do is going to face more scrutiny than pretty much any other player in America. If somebody else does something and he doesn’t, he’s going to get criticized.

“He really has to trust his heart and trust his intent … and do what’s best for him and his future, and not worry about the potential backlash that may come.”

One of Love’s summer classes was statistics. He no doubt knows this one: 2.57 years.

That’s the average career of an NFL running back.