DraftFix: Love is all you need ... or is it?

The Jets won this week, so there's no "It could be worse". Instead, we're going to reward ourselves with a look at something related to next April's draft.

One player who has been receiving increasing levels of hype over the course of this season is Stanford running back Bryce Love. Love was a productive change-of-pace back behind Christian McCaffrey last season but he got off to an explosive start as the lead back this year.

Love showed his potential in last year's Sun Bowl, which McCaffrey controversially opted to skip. In addition to 115 rushing yards, Love caught a 49-yard touchdown pass in Stanford's 25-23 win over Mitch Trubisky's North Carolina.

He initially lived up to that promise and more in 2017, as he was leading the nation in rushing yards and appeared to headed towards becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Seven games in, after rushing for 147 yards and two scores on just 17 carries against Oregon (a top 20 run defense), Love had accummulated the following remarkable statistics:

  • Dating back to last season, Love had a string of nine consecutive games with at least 100 rushing yards and at least one run of 50 yards or more;
  • He had averaged at least 7.9 yards per carry in every game;
  • At one stage, he had more yards before halftime than all but seven running backs in the nation had managed in total;
  • His 744 yards before first contact was more than both Nick Chubb and Saquon Barkley's total rushing yards; and
  • He had more runs of 30 yards or more (18) than runs where he was stopped for a loss (17).

Clearly Love was one of the top players in college football in the first half of this season. Is he a top-level NFL prospect though?

McCaffrey's inability to have any success running the ball at the NFL level has to give people pause. The 2017 top-10 pick averages less than three yards per carry and didn't score his first touchdown on the ground until yesterday (and even that was a funky long-range pitch that seemed to travel forwards and probably should be changed to a pass play in the official statistics).

Of course, McCaffrey's value also comes from his abilities in the return game and as a pass catcher, where he's done well. Love doesn't seem to share these abilities, as he has just four catches for 19 yards on the year. He did have 23 career receptions for 333 yards and two scores entering the season, though, including the Sun Bowl touchdown mentioned earlier.

In assessing his suitability for an NFL role, the yards before contact stat leaps out. Love would have been among the leaders in the nation even if he didn't create any yards after contact, so surely his offensive line should get most of the credit? Obviously he did create some yards after the contact, though. Quite a lot in fact, which is why he built a healthy lead as the nation's leading rusher.

In any case, using yards before contact as shorthand for how well an offensive line is blocking can be misleading. Love's style of play is such that he does a good job of eluding defenders and running away from them. Many of his longer runs saw him completely untouched and he also makes a lot of yardage around the edge where the offensive line's role in the play is not as significant.

Nevertheless, there's no question that his offensive line does play its part in his success and this should perhaps get us to take a closer look at some of the personnel on that line, nearly all of whom were also seeing significant playing time last season.

Let's look at an example. You'll note that Love bursts through the hole and shows excellent open field vision and acceleration and he uses a stop-start move to run away from defenders at the second level and then again down the field:


The blocking on this play is excellent. Freshman left tackle Walker Little (#72) drives his man to the outside to open a hole, tight end Dalton Schultz (#9) rides a linebacker out of the play and center Jesse Burkett (#73) pulls off one of Nick Mangold's favorite tricks by sealing his man to the inside and swelling up at the last moment to also take out a second player coming off the backside.

Love is completely untouched on the play, but he's definitely using his talent to create more yardage.

David Shaw gets a lot of credit for his schemes, of course and one wrinkle is that Stanford will often use a short toss-pitch rather than a hand-off to get Love to the hole at full speed. This worked perfectly in the aforementioned Oregon game, as he exploited a huge lane to go untouched for another long touchdown:


There's good vision, burst and open field acceleration from Love again, but he doesn't need to use his talent and elusiveness much on this play. On this one, Schultz this time walls off the linebacker at the second level to the inside and left tackle Devery Hamilton (#74) sets the edge too. This time, the pulling guard Nate Herbig (#63) drives his man out of the play to create the huge lane.

After those first seven games, Love's fortunes took a downturn. Stanford had a week off and then were set to face Oregon State, who had just one win at the time and currently rank 94th out of 129 teams in run defense, giving up 4.7 yards per carry.

Unfortunately for Love, he was unable to play due to an ankle injury, thereby losing a valuable game's worth of production for his Heisman candidacy. On the basis that Stanford's offensive line was the key to their running game and the Beavers had one of the worst run defenses in the nation, this was a great opportunity for reserves Cameron Scarlett and Trevor Speights, each of whom entered the game averaging five yards per carry.

It didn't work out that way, though, as they combined for just 82 yards on 22 carries and Stanford needed a late touchdown to come away with a 15-14 win.

Love returned this week to face Washington State, a team that is statistically the best run defense other than Oregon that Stanford has faced so far this season and includes NFL prospect Hercules Mata'afa.

Initially Love, perhaps rusty or still bothered by the ankle injury, gained just 14 yards on his first six carries. However, he then broke yet another long touchdown run:


Love shows that the burst and breakaway speed was still there and used a bit of power to run through the defensive back downfield. However, you can see just how wide open the running lane was.

Little and Burkett each drive their man out of the play at the second level as this play keys on left guard David Bright driving his man downhill. The play is so well blocked that Schultz can't even find anyone to lay a hat on.

Love was off to a good start, with 66 yards on seven carries, but that was pretty much it from him. His other nine carries netted three yards as he was stuffed for a loss six times on those nine plays and eight times overall. Love ended up with just 69 yards on 16 carries as the Cougars won 24-21. He now trails San Diego State's Rashaad Penny as the nation's leading rusher.

Here's an example:


The blocking was obviously poor here as Schultz and the wide receiver each whiffed on their blocks and Bright allowed penetration into the backfield. However, the rest of the line carried out their assignments well and this could have created a big cutback lane if Schultz had done a better job.

While there wasn't much Love could have done about most of these plays where he got stuffed, the ability to create something out of nothing is something he'll need to put on film. This was also his first fumble of the year.

Love's stock has perhaps taken a hit over these past few weeks. The same could be said for some of these Stanford linemen, all of whom have the potential to be draft prospects but could be regarded as products of Shaw's scheme.

Love is slightly undersized but his vision and open field elusiveness should make him a day two selection. He could run 4.3 in the offseason too, which could potentially push him into the first round. That probably won't happen if his production doesn't pick up again over the rest of the season, though.