North Carolina wanted Bryce Love and for a time maybe Love wanted North Carolina, too. Those things are always difficult to tell, UNC coach Larry Fedora said here on Thursday, the day before his team's game against Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
“In recruiting, you never feel good about any of it,” Fedora said. “But we knew that we had an advantage as far as being closer to home for him.”
During his years at Wake Forest High, Love became one of the nation's top running back prospects. He was a four-star recruit, according to the 247sports.com composite ranking, and among the 10 most coveted prospects in the state in the class of 2015.
He was the kind of player that Fedora tries to keep home. Love liked UNC enough to include the school among his two finalists before he made his college decision. And then he broke some hearts, at least in North Carolina, when he decided to go across the country to Stanford.
Now comes a reunion of sorts. When Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey decided not to play in the Sun Bowl so he could begin his preparation for the NFL draft, that left Love, the usual No. 2 in the Cardinal backfield, as Stanford's starting running back.
“Didn't know that I would ever have to play against him,” Fedora said. “But unfortunately we do.”
He tried to say the Tar Heels were looking forward to the challenge, and perhaps they are. Several UNC players are familiar with Love, and remember him from the recruiting process.
T.J. Logan, a senior who will start at running back for UNC on Friday, remembers spending time with Love during one of his visits to Chapel Hill. Now Logan and Love will be going against each other, in a sense, at Sun Bowl Stadium.
Without McCaffrey, Stanford's rushing offense is undoubtedly less formidable. To what degree that's true, though, is unknown. Love, after all, has run for 664 yards, and he's averaging 7.38 yards per carry. Next season, during his junior year, he's set to become Stanford's featured running back.
On both sides on Friday, there's likely to be some thoughts of 'what if?' What if Love had stayed home and chosen to play at UNC? For one, the Tar Heels' backfield depth would look better next season than it appears it will be, with the loss of Logan and Khris Francis, a senior reserve.
Love chose to go to Stanford to pursue his interest in a post-football career in the medical world. David Shaw, the Stanford coach, described how Love appreciated that some of his future college teammates shared a passion for medical research, and balanced that interest with their football pursuits.
“He's intellectually curious,” Shaw said. “He's a bright young man, a very smart young man. He's interested in the medical world, is fascinated by it.
“And when his football career is done, I think somewhere way down the road – because I think he's going to play on Sundays – he's going to find his way into that medical world.”
Fedora said he tried to play that angle, too. He pitched UNC's medical school, ranked among the best in the country, and tried to sell Love on the idea of following his off-field passion in Chapel Hill. There was a family connection, too: Love's uncle, Reggie, played at UNC.
“But I think in the long run Stanford had some things that he was looking for that we didn't have,” Fedora said. “So he made that decision.”
Now comes a kind of reunion, Love and the Tar Heels meeting again two years after they tried to keep him from getting away.