HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — As often as Christian McCaffrey came up during Stanford Cardinal running back Bryce Love‘s podium time at Pac-12 media days, one might assume McCaffrey will be balling on The Farm this season — not 2,700 miles across the country in Charlotte.
McCaffrey will wear Carolina Panthers black and blue this upcoming football season, but the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up’s essence looms over Cardinal football. In particular, the record-setting McCaffrey’s presence serves to crowd a backfield with Love, the back tabbed with replacing the NCAA’s single-season all-purpose yardage king.
Yes, any player tasked with filling the role once held by a player responsible for more than 4,500 yards rushing and receiving in just two seasons, a benchmark McCaffrey reached, will draw comparisons.
This isn’t a new process at Stanford under head coach David Shaw. When Kevin Hogan took over at quarterback in 2012, all he had to do was replace two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Andrew Luck.
“It will happen for (Love) in a similar way (as Hogan), because we aren’t going to force him to be Christian McCaffrey,” Shaw said. “We’re just going to let him be who he is.”
Indeed, emphasizing what differentiated Hogan was the approach as he developed in the long shadow Luck cast. By the time Hogan left Stanford after the 2015 season, he hadn’t piled up the same individual honors as his predecessor, but he did reach some significant milestones Luck hadn’t — specifically, leading the Cardinal to three Pac-12 championships.
Love was on the roster for the third and final Hogan-quarterbacked Pac-12 title, claimed in the same 2015 season in which McCaffrey scrawled his name all over NCAA records books.
” ‘Hog’ really came into his own,” Love said of Hogan. “When I came in, Hogan was already a legend. My freshman year, I was looking at Hogan two lockers away, and he’s a normal guy. But to me, he’s some kind of a beast, legend, GOAT — whatever you want to say.
“But I have looked back at a lot of those things, how he came out of that mold and how he stepped up,” Love added. “To that caliber he played, I’m trying to do the same thing.”
From the coaching staff’s perspective, it’s one thing to talk about letting Love similarly excel and fit into his spot in his own way. Actually putting it into practice requires pinpointing what makes Love special and emphasizing it through play calls and schemes.
Fortunately for the Cardinal, Shaw already has an idea how to do that.
“Using what Bryce does well, so he can have his own identity,” Shaw said. “And I really think he started to do that, those two games Christian didn’t play: Notre Dame and North Carolina, Bryce was the guy. Twenty (or more) carries both games, over 100 yards both games; big, explosive plays.”
Shaw took his endorsement a step further, adding: “We expect that to happen more often this year, as he’ll have more opportunities, more touches this year.”
McCaffrey’s injuries midway through the campaign, and his decision to forego the Sun Bowl to begin his NFL draft preparations, provided Love opportunities to step in as the primary ball carrier. And he flourished with 129 rushing yards in a win at Notre Dame and 119 in the Sun Bowl vs. North Carolina. He added another 111 yards with a touchdown in just seven carries in the regular-season finale against Rice.
All told, Love was good for 783 rushing yards on the 2016 campaign and averaged 7.1 yards per carry.
Love said those previous experiences should make the transition this season much smoother.
As far as further establishing himself as his own back — an approach he agreed was vital for him to successfully replace McCaffrey — Love’s preferences in attacking defenses should differentiate him from his predecessor.
“My two favorite plays are inside zone and wrap, which is like a counter play where you get to go into the middle and feel it out,” Love said. “I just like reading out the play, how the (defensive) linemen might jump in or setting people up; being patient then finding a way through.”
Preferring to attack defenses from the interior makes Love perhaps more comparable to former Cardinal standouts Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor — two backs who flourished between the tackles. Many of McCaffrey’s most jaw-dropping runs came on the edges.
Taylor and Gaffney were central to Pac-12 championships and helped establish the lofty standard for Cardinal running backs; McCaffrey then reset that standard to unprecedented heights.
For Love, however, the standard McCaffrey truly set isn’t about the numbers, individual accolades or even rushing style.
“Honestly, it’s not even the stuff he did on the field. The impressive stuff for me … would be just him waking up really early; getting in (to the training room for) recovery; how he approached practice and meetings with the same attitude (as games),” Love said.
If there’s anything about McCaffrey that Love can emulate, it’s that approach to preparation. Love might not surpass Barry Sanders’ single-season yardage mark or produce as many of the highlight-reel moments that landed McCaffrey on the Heisman ballot.
But should he take the field with the same level of dedication, Stanford’s run game should be just fine.
“At the end of the day, there will never be another Christian,” Love said. “In terms of me … I want to be the best version of myself.”
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