Luke DeCock

Why Wake Forest's star runner Bryce Love passed up the NFL and returned to Stanford

In the space of a season, Bryce Love went from understudy to breakthrough star, from Christian McCaffrey's backup to Heisman Trophy finalist. Everything changed for the Stanford running back from Wake Forest, even if he tries his best not to notice.

“I don't even really pay attention to anything like that,” Love said Thursday. “Last year, my goal was just to focus on being the best version of myself for my teammates. That's kind of grown into trying to make the team the best version of the team that it can be. At the end of the day, I'm focused on that.”

Love actually wasn't even the best version of himself – the explosive, quick-twitch, one-move-and-he's-gone version of himself – for the entire season; a midseason ankle injury kept him out of one game and slowed him in others, preventing him from leading the nation in rushing (San Diego State's Rashaad Penny did, with 2,248 yards to Love's 2,118) and allowing Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield to run away with the Heisman.

Rehab on that ankle kept him out of contact drills in spring practice and Stanford's spring game, but in some ways it's surprising he's still at Stanford at all. While his close friend and fellow Wake County speedster Nyheim Hines decided to leave N.C. State for the NFL, Love decided to stay at Stanford, where he took a 4.5 GPA into the spring semester as a human biology major.

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The NFL remains in his future, and perhaps medical school as well, but the latter trumped the former when it came to making a decision about entering the draft this spring.

“It was tough decision, but I came to it relatively quickly,” Love said. “Academics played a big part in it. To put it simply, I wanted to come back and graduate and win games for the university and compete with my teammates for another year.”

It's safe to say the Heisman didn't play a role in that decision, not that anyone would hold it against Love if it had. That's just not how he's wired. But as the second-place finisher and the only returnee among the top five vote-getters, his decision immediately installed him as the obvious favorite to win the Heisman this fall.

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And also the betting favorite, if only briefly: According to the online sportsbook Bovada, Love opened as the Heisman favorite in January but early money poured in on a pair of Big Ten running backs, Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins and Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor.

Still, especially when fully healthy, Love has proven he is more than capable and the Stanford offense has proven more than amenable to generating the kind of obscene yardage totals that propel running backs into the national spotlight. Love found himself there last season. He'll start his senior season there.

His job as an every-down back won't change; he may become more involved in the passing game (he caught only six passes in 2017, and his extraordinary speed should, in theory, make him a weapon in space) and he's a willing recipient of the recovery tips McCaffrey passes along from the Carolina Panthers, all of which may actually serve to increase his role in the Stanford offense, since he piled up those yards on an average of 20 carries per game.

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“As far as goals, statistically I don't really have anything crazy,” Love said. “More so than anything else, I want to go 1-0 each week. I want to go win 13 games instead of nine. I want to end up accomplishing the ultimate team goals we have set forth.”

If all goes well, Love, who's 5-10 and 196 pounds, stands on the brink of history. He was the third North Carolina native to finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting, joining Choo Choo Justice (Asheville) and Heath Shuler (Bryson City). Love is already the Triangle's first Heisman finalist; he could potentially be the state's first winner – which, given some of the talent North Carolina has sent to the NFL, is pretty incredible.

He didn't come back to make history. But he may end up making it anyway.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947,, @LukeDeCock