The legend of Bryce Love was grounded on Pop Warner football fields in the town of Wake Forest and on running tracks across the country. So, not long into Wake Forest’s 2011 high school football season, Reggie Lucas found a way to slip his freshman running back into a varsity game.
The time had arrived against Raleigh Sanderson to see what the 14-year-old could do while playing for and against more seasoned players. On one of his first carries, Love swept the end and was a blur in sprinting 77 yards for a touchdown.
“We knew that if he was able to do it as a freshman against a varsity team, he was the real deal,” said Lucas, the Wake Forest head coach then and today.
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Seven years later, Love is again turning heads of late-night viewers of college football from the West Coast. As the successor to Christian McCaffrey, now with the Panthers, in the Stanford Cardinal backfield, Love ranks second nationally with 175 yards per game rushing. His 12.19 yards per carry lead the NCAA.
“Bryce Love, absolutely explosive,’’ said Stanford coach David Shaw to an Australian newspaper prior to his team’s Down Under season-opener against Rice. “Every time this guy gets the football, you know he’s got a chance of going all the way.”
The 5-10, 196-pound Love appears to have a little Barry Sanders in his game, occasionally lulling opposing defenses to sleep when he is bottled up at the line of scrimmage, only to break the next one for a long gain. This past week in a loss at San Diego State, Love opened the game with runs of 0, 3 and 1 yard before breaking off a 51-yard touchdown. His next two runs gained 1-yard total, and later in the game he scored from 53 yards out.
He also had a 62-yard run against Rice and a 75-yarder against Southern California. His rushing totals of 183, 168 and 184 in Stanford’s first three games come as no surprise to anyone who saw him play at Wake Forest High.
Love was one of the nation’s top-rated running backs after a four-year career in which he rushed for 5,372 yards and 71 touchdowns. He earned all-state and Shrine Bowl honors as a senior and ran one leg of Wake Forest’s state championship 4x100 relay team.
His speed comes naturally. Love’s father, Chris, who won the 1987 NCHSAA 400-meter title at Durham Hillside, earned three letters in track at South Carolina.
“Every time I say my speed came from my Dad, my Mom always says she is 50 percent, too,” said Love, whose mother was an athlete in high school before earning a music scholarship to South Carolina.
With tutelage from his father, Love set national 11-12 year-old boys USA Track & Field records in the 100, 200 and 400 meters, then set USATF 13-14 year-old boys USTAF records in the 100 and 200. He was timed at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2013 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Years later, Love continues to learn how to best use that speed on a football field.
“Understanding speed,” Love said by way of recognizing an area he needs to improve. “Being able to be patient with it, knowing when to throttle down and read things, and knowing when to hit and go, break tackles, step through things,”
In addition to his speed, Love’s high school 4.5 grade-point average in mostly honors and advanced placement courses, had the likes of Duke, UNC, N.C. State and Stanford wooing his services. He fell in love with Stanford on an official recruiting visit, even knowing that his playing time would be limited his first two seasons.
“For a kid who is the star, number-one running back on every team that he’s ever played on, for him to go to Stanford and be patient behind a guy like Christian McCaffrey, says a lot about his character, his dedication, his commitment,” Lucas said.
Love said two seasons as an understudy to one of the nation’s top running backs proved beneficial on several fronts. In addition to emulating McCaffrey’s game, Love said he took note of how the Carolina Panthers’ top draft pick handled attention, how he studied film and how he took care of his body.
“All of the greatness was a lot of little things stacked on top of things for him,” Love said.
For Love, stacking successes includes competing in the classroom as well. He is majoring in Human Biology with an aim of medical school to become a pediatrician.
To do get an idea of Love’s competitiveness, consider that when asked to reminisce about that first high school touchdown run against Raleigh Sanderson, Love instead said he most remembered the fumble he lost later in the game.