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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
The Observer

All you need is Love: Julian Love leads a dominant Irish secondary with a smile on his face

Julian Love has the ball, but he’s tackled at the 3-yard line.

Back when the sophomore cornerback played on offense in high school, getting taken down so close to the goal line would have been frustrating.

It’s still a little frustrating for Love as he records his first career interception in an Irish uniform and tries to run 97 yards upfield for a score in Notre Dame’s win over Army on Nov. 12 of last year, only to be stopped after two yards.

But fast forward to the present, and Love has two pick-sixes on the season — a jumped slant route against Michigan State, and a 69-yard tip-toe down the sideline in Notre Dame’s most recent game against North Carolina State. To casual Notre Dame fans, the two pick-sixes come as a welcome surprise, but for Love, it was only a matter of time until he put the ball in the end-zone.

“I told myself before the season, ‘If I get my hand on the ball, I’m going to score,’” Love said. “Last year I had a pick against Army and immediately, I was kind of tackled, the guy was on me pretty quick. I was a little upset because I wanted a little room to work and I think that’s all I need to make something happen. That feeling of picking off a ball and having some space means a lot and I try to take advantage of it.”

Love’s will to score was apparent during his most recent return against North Carolina State. As soon as he caught caught Ryan Finley’s errant pass, Love turned upfield and started directing sophomore defensive lineman Daelin Hayes to block, channeling some of his old running-back vision.

Sarah Olson | The Observer
Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love heads upfield after an interception during Notre Dame's 35-14 win over North Carolina State on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“Since I was young, I’ve always played both offense and defense. I was a patient runner so I would wait for my blockers to set up before I would take off,” Love said. “On that play, I felt the angle of everybody running towards me, I felt like I needed to get behind somebody and redirect. And Daelin, that’s just a great play by him, just following my point and realizing what he needed to do. He turned around. You have Shaun Crawford coming in and cross blocking the quarterback and it was great blocking — my style of running basically.”

Love has shown a propensity for scoring this year, but he isn’t the only turnover machine in the Irish secondary. Sophomore cornerback Shaun Crawford has two picks of his own and a forced fumble on the goal line to prevent a touchdown versus Michigan State, and senior Nick Watkins recorded an interception against USC.

Love said the secondary’s success has gone hand-in-hand with defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s message of dominating opposing offenses.

“It’s basically all of us communicating on the back end and talking to each other,” Love said. “Basically just putting our hands on balls, that’s what coach Elko always says, we always need to have our hands near the football. That started in practice a couple weeks ago and he basically challenged us to take the next step as a defense from being great to being a dominating, championship defense. I think that’s been showing itself the past couple weeks.”

But while Love looks to dominate his opponents on the field, off the field he can’t stop smiling.

Like honestly, he can’t. Just ask senior linebacker Nyles Morgan.

“He’s always happy. Like, I don’t know why he’s always happy,” Morgan joked Wednesday. “We’ll be lifting, dying, he’s [smiling] like this the whole way. I’m like, ‘You’re crazy.’

“But no, on a serious note, Julian is the one that brings just the energy around to everybody. He walks in the building, he’s happy. We need that, though. I personally love it because sometimes I might be in a grumpy mood. I’ll talk to him about 10 seconds, I’m back to normal, I can talk to everybody else. Definitely need it.”

“I do get that a lot, a lot of people ask, ‘Can you go a couple seconds without smiling?’” Love said. “Most of the time, I don’t realize it. I feel like when I step into the Gug and when I step around these players, I just have so much fun. That’s something I’ve always strived to do and be that type of person where I can have fun all the time. That’s why I play football, I don’t play in the hopes of a job, it’s not all business for me.”

But Love also admits he likes poking fun at his teammates.

“I love messing with Nyles about it, asking ‘Oh what’s wrong? Why are you so angry?’” Love said with a laugh.

Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love reads the play during Notre Dame's 35-14 win over North Carolina State on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Now in his second year, and after starting eight games as a true freshman, Love finds himself as a leader in the young Irish secondary. For Love, leading is easy because the defensive backs are so close.

“Honestly it’s the other DBs making it easier for me,” Love said. “We all work together so well. They’re not resistant at all to coaching by our staff or advice by our players such as me and that ease of leadership, it’s always there. I feel like everyone is a leader. We’re all around the same age, we’re all sophomores and juniors and we’re all brothers and we love each other.”

The group is so close they’ve given each other nicknames based off of the Justice League characters. For a leader and starter like Julian Love, one would expect Superman to be the nickname of choice.

But Love’s moniker of Aquaman speaks to his leadership as much as what he does in the game.

“We decided before the season — the players and coach Lyght — that we shouldn’t have a Superman,” Love said. “Because when you think of Superman, you think of the leader, the alpha, and we’re a team. We all work together, we’re all equal. I like that. I like Superman, everybody wants to be Superman, but sometimes you have to be Aquaman to make a team work.”

Though he always possessed a natural charisma, Love’s role as a leader evolved dramatically since last year, as both Love individually, and the Irish defense as a whole, have come a long way.

After a tough start which saw defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder fired, Love was asked to play a larger role and more minutes for the Irish in just his freshman year. That experience, Love said, taught him a lot about playing freely and without reserve.

“[Playing a lot freshman year] taught me I can’t play with the fear of making mistakes,” Love said. “When you’re a freshman, you’re worried about getting pulled off too quickly or making a mistake and your team looking at you and not trusting you. That was going through my mind early on. But as I started more and more, I got more confident. Once the season ended, I realized, ‘I belong here, this is my spot.’ And now I’ve made the transition from being a role player to being a playmaker for the team. That’s kind of my whole mindset coming into this year.”

That improvement and playmaking ability has attracted the attention of Love’s teammates and the Irish coaching staff. On Tuesday, Irish head coach Brian Kelly praised Love’s lower-body strength and ability to read plays.

“He has a unique skill set in that physically he’s one of our strongest players from the waist below,” Kelly said. “And it allows him to really transition well at the position in which he plays. He can really stick his foot in the ground and drive on receivers. He learns well. He bit on a double move early [against NC State], got hit with a double move again later in the game and was able to see it coming.”

But Love said defensive backs coach Todd Lyght has a better way of putting it.

“They say water covers two-thirds of the planet, and the other third is covered by Julian Love. That’s Todd Lyght’s joke about that.”