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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 27 Julian Love, cornerback, second-team All-American

Notre Dame v Stanford

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 25: JJ Arcega-Whiteside #19 of the Stanford Cardinal catches a touchdown pass while covered by Julian Love #27 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Stanford Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-11, 189 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Love will start wherever the Irish defense most needs him. This season, that will be as the boundary corner, the position of most solo coverage, per cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght. “The way our defense is set up, the boundary corner has to win a lot of one-on-ones and he was able to do that for us last year,” Lyght said in early April.
Recruiting: A four-star prospect, Notre Dame targeted the Chicago-area product early, gaining Love’s commitment more than 10 months before National Signing Day over a number of offers from other Midwestern schools such as Northwestern, Iowa and Illinois. Rivals rated Love the No. 21 cornerback in the class of 2016 and the No. 4 prospect in Illinois. Such a description would not usually yield a future second-team All-American, as “Sports Illustrated” named Love last season.

Love is on course to be a four-year starter for the Irish, having now played in all 25 games the last two seasons and starting 21 of them.

2016: 12 games, eight starts; 45 tackles with two for loss and one forcing a fumble, one recovered fumble, one interception.
2017: 13 games, 13 starts; fifth-leading tackler on the team with 68, including one for loss. Made three interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns and coming painfully-close to scoring with the third, as well. Added a school-record 20 pass breakups.

As much as a coaching staff can be disappointed with a sophomore All-American, the Notre Dame coaches may have been in Love this spring. Nonetheless, they know what they have in him, at some points working Love with the second-unit simply to get other cornerbacks first-team reps. Even when he was not performing at his best this spring, that is how confident the Irish coaches were in Love.

“He’ll make a big play, and then he’ll come back and he might go into a little bit of an autopilot mode where he’ll relax a little bit and not really push himself past his comfort level,” Lyght said. “Just to continually stay on him about his focus, his intentions, his attention-to-detail, his pre-snap readiness — [those] are going to be the keys to getting him to the next level.”

Lyght’s referencing the next level was not an acknowledgement of Love’s NFL possibilities, but rather a nod toward what could be an even more impressive 2018 season, partly due to the defense shifting its usual schemes to best accentuate Love’s abilities.

“We’re expecting him to elevate his play,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in mid-March. “Part of it is through what he’s doing in the offseason and his conditioning and weight training, and part of it is in our teaching.

“We’re going to be doing some things that I think are going to accentuate his ability to play press coverage. We want to play some press. It’s something we haven’t done much here, but it’s something he brings to our football team and when you can press some guys and have the physicality that he has, it elevates his game.”

“The downside of excelling as a freshman is the expectations it sets up for the subsequent sophomore. If Love struggles early in the season, it does not mean 2016 was a blip. It means he is still a college sophomore learning a new defensive system.

“Will he struggle? There is no reason to think so. Love played well from the outset last year, and never offered the other cornerbacks much hope this spring at usurping him from the starter’s role. He should start against Temple and every game the rest of the way, barring injury.

“If insistent on numbers, a jump to 70-plus tackles and multiple interceptions would be reasonable, but keep in mind tackles from defensive backs are not necessarily good things. As much as they may indicate a nose for the ball, they may also indicate shoddy pass defense.”

This is as valid a spot as any to note of Love’s 68 tackles last season, 14 came against Navy while starting at safety as a response to the triple-option offense. His tackling numbers were not inflated by poor pass defense; they were simply a sign of his all-around game.

That all-around game apparently included some inconsistency this spring, just as it did in September. At least one intelligent sports mind who watches the Irish exceptionally closely (no, not this scribe) described Love as “underwhelming” after three weeks. Of course, that became a laughable sentiment when Love returned a Michigan State interception 59 yards for his first career touchdown.

The tantalizing concept of more such turnovers raises the ceiling on Love’s junior year. Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea recognize they have a unique talent on their hands, someone who can shut down an entire sideline of the field and, if given the greenlight, turn a few mistakes into game-changing plays.

Such a carrot may keep Love focused from the outset. By season’s end, he all but frothed at the mouth whenever he knew the opposition had no choice but to throw, all the way to LSU’s final drive in Notre Dame’s Citrus Bowl victory, breaking up two of the Tigers’ closing four pass attempts in the last minute.

With that in mind, another 65-70 tackles should be expected from Love, along with at least three interceptions and a dozen pass breakups. If any of those figures drop off in 2018, that may not be a reflection of Love, but rather of opposing passers avoiding throwing toward the shutdown corner.

The eligibility of junior safety Alohi Gilman and the arrival of freshmen safeties Houston Griffith and Derrik Allen have silenced any talk of Love moving to the defense’s back line. The end of that conversation focuses the ensuing discussion of Love’s future.

If Love plays as well in 2018 as he did last season, he will have a genuine decision to make about heading to the NFL with a season of collegiate eligibility remaining. The Irish coaches will make every effort to talk him into returning, just as they did this past winter regarding linebackers Drue Tranquill and Tev’on Coney and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.

If they are successful, expect Love to be a four-year starter and a senior captain in 2019. Becoming a consensus All-American would not seem out of the question, either, considering he reached the smaller print of those pages as a mere sophomore.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 29 Ovie Oghoufo, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 28 Nicco Fertitta, safety, senior
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman

No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

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