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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer


For the Notre Dame backfield, Love is the answer

After a standout freshman season, Jeremiyah Love is ready to lead the Irish running backs in 2024

It’s uncommon for a true freshman to be given opportunities for significant playing time at a premier program like Notre Dame, and especially so when the starter at their position is among the nation’s best players.

But even as Audric Estime rumbled his way to All-American honors last fall while becoming one of the most accomplished and beloved Irish running backs in recent memory, the talent of freshman Jeremiyah Love – who was not an early enrollee and didn’t arrive on campus until the summer – made it impossible for the Notre Dame coaching staff to keep him off the field for long.

Fast-forward to this spring, and as Estime prepares to hear his name called in the upcoming NFL Draft, it’s now up to Love – along with returning juniors Jadarian Price and Gi'Bran Payne – to shoulder the load of Notre Dame’s rushing attack. And after using his near-unmatched combination of raw speed and effortless acceleration to quite literally burst onto the scene during his first fall in South Bend, that leading role is one that the rising sophomore is ready, willing and able to take on.

“I’m very confident,” Love said after a spring practice in March about his mentality entering the upcoming season. “Playing behind Audric — I looked up to Audric, got a lot of knowledge from him – and my objective is just to come into my sophomore season trying to be a leader.”

Much of that confidence comes from the game experience he gained as a freshman, with former Irish offensive coordinator Gerad Parker finding spurts of playing time for Love in order to utilize his burst and explosiveness as an effective complement to Estime’s smashmouth running style.

“It was really valuable. Coming in as a freshman and getting reps, it’s always valuable [to] get an in-game feel for how everything goes,” Love said about receiving playing time as a freshman. “And it’s really translated to me going into my sophomore season, I’ve already got a feel for things. So it helped a lot.”

Following an illustrious high school career in which he earned Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year honors while leading Christian Brothers College High School to back-to-back state championships and claiming the state title in the 100-meter dash, it didn’t take long for the four-star recruit from St. Louis to show Irish fans what he could do.

Love picked up 40 yards on just four carries in Notre Dame’s season opener against Navy in Dublin. The following week, he scored his first career touchdown against Tennessee State, getting to the edge and breaking several tackles en route to the end zone from 36 yards out.

He capitalized on his opportunities to find similar success on some of the biggest stages that college football has to offer, notably taking eight carries for 57 yards in Notre Dame’s narrow defeat against Ohio State and combining for 104 all-purpose yards on the road against ranked opponents Duke and Louisville. Love finished the season with 385 rushing yards, second-most on the Irish and good for more than five yards per carry.

As he looks to build on that success in year two, though, he’ll be facing a vastly different set of circumstances. Last season, Estime was the clear leader of the running back room, both on and off the field. This fall, Love will be competing with Price and Payne for the lion’s share of the more than 200 carries that are suddenly up for grabs.

“I would say there’s a lot more competition,” Love said about the running back environment this spring. “You know, Audric was Audric, we all knew what he was going to do, so with him gone, there’s an open spot. Everybody’s competing every day, just coming in to work. And we’re also being respectful about it, nobody’s hating on each other, nothing like that. We’re coming in every day to work and to play off of each other.”

Estime’s departure left a leadership void as well. Despite being just a rising sophomore, Love has emerged as someone who can be counted on as a guiding force for the running backs, particularly Aneyas Williams and Kedren Young, Notre Dame’s talented freshman duo at the position.

“Standard-wise, in the running back room, nothing’s really changed,” Price said about maintaining the ‘D3’ standard taught by associate head coach and running backs coach Deland McCullough. “Me and Gi’Bran and even Jeremiyah, we’re making sure that the young guys continue on the process and know that … we’re still going to be detailed, dependable and disciplined.”

Love echoed the sentiment of the team’s three-headed running back monster establishing a sense of leadership by committee.

“I want to … be a leader in the room and lead the young guys, and also just set an example for the team. That’s what we as a running back unit do, we’re kind of trying to set that tone for everybody,” Love said. “Audric left some big shoes to fill, but we’re all trying to fill that leadership role … All of us are doing it together.”

To add one more piece to an already-complex puzzle, Love has had to manage this increased level of competition and his expanded leadership responsibilities while learning an entirely new offense, as the Irish landed the highly-touted Mike Denbrock as their new offensive coordinator (he previously served in the same role at LSU) following Parker’s departure to become the head coach at Troy.

It might sound like a lot for a college freshman to handle, and it no doubt is, but Love has elevated his own game to meet the heightened expectations he’ll face in the upcoming season. To him, that growth starts with the mental aspect.

“I would say in my football IQ,” Love said when asked where he’s improved most during his time in South Bend. “I came in, played as a freshman, got a lot of playing time, and that only helped my IQ. I know things that I didn’t know before, and it allows me to be a smarter football player.”

Couple that with the physical development that has stemmed from his first full offseason of strength and conditioning with the Irish, and it would come as no surprise to see him enjoy the type of breakout season that Irish fans have been eagerly awaiting since catching glimpses of his ability as a freshman.

“He’s done a great job of integrating into what the new offense is, understanding what his role is. He put on seven or eight pounds worth of muscle, so that’s been big for him, too. Now he’s not only very fast and explosive, [he’s also] sturdy,” McCullough said about Love’s progression in the midst of his first spring at Notre Dame. “So [I’m] just excited about what he’ll ultimately bring to the table, which should be pretty dynamic this season.”

That aforementioned new offense should provide Love with plenty of opportunities to showcase that dynamic skillset. Denbrock’s scheme – which helped LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels win the Heisman Trophy last fall – is aggressive and up-tempo, and it actively seeks to utilize running backs both on the ground and through the air. Love – who has been taking some reps at slot receiver as well as running back in an effort to put himself in position to contribute as much as possible – views it as a perfect fit.

“The one thing I do like about [Denbrock’s] offense is that it’s way more explosive. We’re doing more stuff with the [running] backs out in routes… and that’s kind of my [preferred] field of play, so I think the offense is great,” Love said. “I want to get some receiver work [during spring practice], get a foundation at receiver so that I could move out to slot anytime they need me to. I’ll probably be going back and forth [between] slot and running back, that type of deal.”

As he enters his sophomore season, Love has been tasked with stepping into a new role, learning a new offense and maybe even seeing playing time at a new position. But he’s exceeded expectations from the first moment he set foot on campus less than a year ago, and he – along with his coaches and teammates – doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Heading into Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game that will conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice slate, Love is a smarter football player than he was last fall, and a stronger one. He’s equipped with the confidence that came from his success as a freshman and has fully embraced a leadership role within the Irish backfield mere months after he was the newcomer in that same running back room. And he’s playing in an offense that appears tailor-made for someone with his trademark speed and elusiveness to thrive.

That’s not to say that things will come easy for Love as a sophomore, even though he certainly made it look that way at times last fall. He’ll now find himself at the head of the scouting report for most opposing defenses, and in a backfield as talented and competitive as Notre Dame’s, playing time is never a guarantee.

But after a season spent learning from Estime, he’s ready to be the featured back, ready to help the Irish offense succeed in whatever way he’s called upon to.

Love’s prologue at Notre Dame is now complete, but there’s a whole lot more in store.

When the Irish open their 2024 season on the road against Texas A&M in August, a new chapter begins.