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The unlikely journey of Jordan Love

Jordan Love once seemed a doubtful candidate to hear his name called during the NFL draft. But entering Saturday’s game against BYU, the redshirt junior could be poised for a first-round selection.

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Utah State quarterback Jordan Love throws a pass against against San Jose State during a Mountain West Conference football game Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Logan, Utah.

Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal

LOGAN — Jordan Love played loose, even as he looked for a big strike.

Down 3 points with 23 seconds left, Utah State was in field goal range, but a tie wasn’t enough. Lined up in the shotgun, Love palmed the snap and looked left, then right, then left again, biding his time.

The Aggies hoped this game, the 2019 season opener at Wake Forest, would be the start of something big. Coming off an 11-2 season, with beloved coach Gary Andersen back at the helm and Love under center, anything seemed possible.

But pressure came off the edge, as a defensive end plowed the Aggies’ left tackle into the backfield like a garden tiller. Love faked left then cut right, sidestepping his own man, tiptoeing through traffic, clutching the ball like a remote in his right hand as the defender grasped at nothing. Love drifted right, one, two, three steps, his eyes locked downfield.

A touchdown would do more than seal the Aggies’ first win over a Power Five opponent since 2014. It would kickstart a dark-horse Heisman campaign for Love, capping his metamorphosis from kid with one FBS scholarship offer to potential first-round draft pick. The redshirt junior may well be the best football player in the state of Utah.

He wasn’t bothered when a linebacker dropped his coverage and sprinted toward him. Still casually drifting, he spotted a receiver coming open at the right sideline, 20 yards downfield. He whipped his arm without setting his feet or even hitching a step and zipped the ball toward the spot where his receiver would be.

For a moment, Love flashed the talent that makes NFL scouts drool: creativity, arm strength, athleticism. Reminiscent of Kansas City star Patrick Mahomes, Love extends plays, shifts past defenders and throws from unorthodox positions with power and immediacy.

But Love didn’t see another linebacker sliding into coverage. His dart flew too low. The defender plucked it out of the sky. Game over.

This season hasn’t been kind to Love or the Aggies, now a disappointing 4-3. Love has looked uneven, and the stats reflect that. His completion percentage has dropped more than nine points; through seven games, he’s thrown as many interceptions (six) as all of last year; he’s on pace for 3,029 passing yards, down from 3,567, and about 16 touchdown passes, down from 32.

Scouts love his potential but worry about his accuracy, poise and decision-making. “When you look at Jordan Love,” said Daniel Jeremiah, an NFL Network analyst, “you’re intrigued not by what he is right now, but by what he can become.”

With five regular-season games remaining, Love is running out of time to convince scouts he is worth the risk — this year. Like Mahomes, he could end up spending a season or two on an NFL bench, learning from the sidelines. Some say he might be better off playing another year in college.

Either way, Love doesn’t seem to feel the weight of expectations or pressure to perform. He knows what it means to feel pain. This? This is just football. So when the BYU Cougars (3-4) visit the Aggies Saturday, Love will surely keep slinging it.

An unlikely place, an unlikely star

This week, winter has come to Cache Valley. Mist shrouds the mountains on a cold October morning. Icicles hang from car bumpers like fangs. Wispy tufts of powder curl off the roofs of Utah State like ghosts in the wind. It feels so cold, a butterfly could flap its wings and snap in half.

Bakersfield, this is not. Back home, Love never shoveled snow, walked in the snow, slipped in the snow or dug his car out of the snow. “Yeah, bro,” he said, wearing a USU sweatsuit and a dark bristly mustache and chin beard. “Not fun. Not fun.”

The weather wasn’t much different when Love first came to Logan in January 2016 as an early enrollee. He arrived to little hype, rated the 98th-best quarterback in his class. He weighed 170-something pounds, and this was his only FBS scholarship offer. Utah State seemed dreary at first, but he adapted. He had to.

“It’s kinda like either adapt, or don’t adapt and just sit in your room all day,” he said. He talks in short bursts, looking away more often than not. “So you find some friends, make friends with your teammates, and just find stuff to do.”

Love didn’t dream of NFL stardom back when his father, Orbin, first taught him to throw a football as a kid. Even in high school, he knew the league was still a long shot. But his mentality changed in college.

“Coming to play college football, that’s the next step is the league,” Love said. “So if you ball out here and do what you gotta do, that next step might be calling your name.”

The caveat: Utah State is no powerhouse, and Love was no five-star firebrand. But with support from his new teammates and coaches, he quietly got working.

First, he had to build a football body, hitting the weights and eating to gain. When he returned to Bakersfield for high school graduation that spring, he was almost 200 pounds — his listed weight during his redshirt year. In 2017, at 215 pounds, he played in 12 games and started the final six, winning three. In 2018, behind 10 more pounds of muscle, he fared just a bit better. 

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Utah State quarterback Jordan Love (10) runs against UNLV at Maverik Stadium in Logan, Utah, on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

That year, Love set five single-season Aggie records — including most touchdown passes and passing yards — and led Utah State to an 11-2 finish. Led is the correct word, per former Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton, a graduate assistant that year.

“His big thing is he’s not going to be the huge yelling guy, but when he says something, you should be paying attention,” Keeton said. “He doesn’t raise his voice all that often, but whenever he needs to turn it up a notch, he definitely garners that attention. He garners that respect. Guys want to play well for him.”

They did exactly that in the New Mexico Bowl, drubbing North Texas 52-13. As Love hoisted the trophy, he knew how proud his dad, Orbin, would have been. After all the grinding it took to reach that moment, he seemed destined to become the first Aggie picked in the first round of the NFL draft since the Boston Patriots took Phil Olsen (Merlin Olsen’s younger brother) fourth overall in 1970.

The next Patrick Mahomes?

Against New Mexico last season, Love faked a jet-sweep handoff and rolled right, a play designed to get his long legs moving in space. Seeming almost comfortable, like he was jogging, he saw his tight end covered on a shallow cross. Then his helmet jerked as his eyes darted downfield. No planting. No setting. No preparation. Mid-run, hopping like an infielder making an off-balance throw, he rifled the ball 25 yards into the outstretched hands of a receiver just breaking open into the end zone.

This is the kind of play that has earned Love a reputation among pro scouts.

Jeremiah, face of the NFL Network’s draft coverage, heard about Love early last season. A buddy had finished a scouting trip through the Pacific Northwest, so Jeremiah asked about Oregon’s Justin Herbert — widely considered one of the two best quarterback prospects in college football, along with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.

“I think this kid at Utah State might be better than Herbert,” the friend answered.

So Jeremiah got the film and studied Love. What he saw looked like a first-round pick. “He expands your playbook because of the rare arm strength and athletic ability,” he said.

Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller recently concurred, writing on Twitter that Love is “likely” to be a first-round pick, and on Wednesday, he released a mock draft with Love pegged 17th overall to Tennessee. He said Love “offers the highest potential” of this year’s quarterback crop. But Miller also called him the “riskiest” of the first-round bunch.

Citing that risk, Jeremiah has also softened his expectations. Arm strength and athleticism are an important litmus test for quarterbacks, he explained, but remain less important than accuracy, poise and decision-making. “He’s in great shape there,” Jeremiah said of Love’s arm and athleticism. “But you get to the other big three, and this year, that’s where some concern arises a little bit.”

Mahomes, last year’s NFL MVP, was a similar case. He flashed rare arm talent and athletic ability at Texas Tech. He was raw, but the Chiefs took him 10th overall. He spent a year developing behind Alex Smith and under head coach Andy Reid, who Jeremiah called football’s best quarterback developer. Mahomes’ meteoric rise could inspire other teams to try the same method with someone like Love, though Jeremiah notes that Mahomes was more polished in college.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes throws against the Denver Broncos.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes throws against the Denver Broncos during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Denver.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

Jeremiah said the teams willing to draft Love early would likely be in a similar situation, with an aging-but-competent starter and a coach known for quarterback development. “If you need a ready-made, no-assembly required quarterback,” Jeremiah said, “you’re not going to like Jordan Love.”

As a redshirt junior, Love could also return to Logan for another season. “It’s a big jump,” Charlie Campbell, a draft analyst for Walter Football, said about playing quarterback in the NFL versus college. “So gaining more experience at the college level is going to help him.”

With another year in Logan, the thinking goes, Love could further develop as a player and enter the draft as a likely top-10 selection, rather than a fringe first-rounder. But he could just as easily rupture an achilles, or regress further, and never cash an NFL paycheck.

“It’s something he should take some time and think about because there are areas he could try to clean up and improve,” Jeremiah said, “and he’s got to decide if he wants to do that at the professional level or at the collegiate level.”

Another way to look at it: Love has five more regular-season chances this year to prove to the NFL that his time is now.

‘He was everything’

Love knows all about overcoming adversity. He learned that from his father, in perhaps the most difficult way imaginable.

Orbin Love never doubted his son, who started out as a backup quarterback for the Freedom, in the Golden Empire Youth Football league in Bakersfield. A veteran police officer who played fullback at Bakersfield College, Orbin Love pushed Jordan Love into sports by the time he could toddle. “He definitely just wanted me to be an athlete,” Jordan Love said. “It didn’t matter what it was.” 

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Utah State quarterback Jordan Love (10) sprints out of the pocket for a big gain during last season’s Utah State-BYU football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018. Love and the Aggies won 45-20.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Ron Harvey, a pastor at Freedom Baptist Church where Orbin Love served as a youth pastor, described his friend as both tough and caring. A man who might knock you down on a pick-and-roll, then extend a hand to lift you up. Harvey once asked him, “Do you ever have any bad moments in your life? Because you’re always smiling.”

Orbin Love laughed. “I’ve had my share,” he said. 

As a high school freshman, Jordan Love was again relegated to the bench as a 5-foot-6 backup quarterback. He also played some receiver and defensive back. No amount of tough love can make a kid taller.

Orbin Love coached him in basketball, too, and his boy showed promise. Jordan Love’s hardwood skills took him to a Saturday morning tournament in the summer before his sophomore year. July 13, 2013. Jordan Love was 14. He was busy playing when his younger sister, who was supposed to arrive with Orbin Love, walked in alone. 

She told their mother, Anna, that Orbin Love had forgotten something and gone home for it. Anna Love called him. He didn’t answer. Sprinting home, she found the 51-year-old in their bedroom, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot.

Jordan Love tried to keep going, but every game, when his father would have been watching from the stands, the memories rushed back. Awful memories from the worst day of his life. He almost quit football. “It was a tough time in my life,” Jordan Love said. “I had thoughts about that.”

Anna Love convinced him to persevere. If she wasn’t around, Jordan Love admitted, he would’ve likely given up or played with less motivation, succumbing to despair, multiplied by the effects of being a teenager. Instead, he did what he could to grieve. “I just tucked it away inside myself, I guess you could say,” he said. “And just tried to move on.”

As time passed, as he returned to the field and court, memories still came back — at every game, at every life milestone. But over time, they shifted. They took Jordan Love back to the good times; the many hours of shooting hoops in the driveway, or of Orbin Love preaching old-school fundamentals. The memories became less of a distraction, more a motivation to do Orbin Love’s memory proud.

During his junior year, Jordan Love — after a growth spurt bumped him to 6-foot-2 — replaced Liberty’s senior quarterback in the season’s third game.

“I started ballin’,” he said, “so.” He shrugged as if to say whatever, you can do the math.

As a senior, he led Liberty to its first-ever D-I Valley Championship — a 56–21 win over Clovis where Love “threw retreating, threw on the run, threw across his body and completed his final nine attempts,” per the Fresno Bee, en route to 294 yards passing, 64 yards rushing and four touchdowns. 

That night, teammate Mason West said, “he was everything.”

Last chance to strut

Love doesn’t need to be all that against BYU. The rivalry game might mean more to students than it does to the team, which is focused on winning its first Mountain West title. But this could be Love’s last chance to strut against a higher-level opponent — and reset the narrative by playing smart football in what should be a frigid atmosphere — perhaps cold enough to snap a butterfly’s wings.

After a humbling 31-7 loss last weekend at Air Force, the Cougars are no easy target. Love threw for four touchdowns and rushed for another in last year’s 45-20 beatdown in Provo, but the BYU passing defense enters Saturday ranked 29th in yards allowed — one of the stingier units the Aggies will face this season.

Maybe that’s ideal. This could be Love’s chance to show he’s more than just arm and athleticism; that he can stand in the pocket and deliver consistently accurate throws. Like his one touchdown against Air Force: one step back, one look down the right sideline, no fake, no hesitation, he lofted a 35-yard dime to his man in the end zone, with less than a ruler of space from the defender.

If that kind of play raises Love’s status among draftniks, so be it. Don’t expect him to worry.

“It’s just not important,” he said of draft prospect rankings. “Who knows who’s out there making that kind of stuff. I don’t really care. At the end of the day, if I’m gonna get drafted, I’ll know that I’m gonna get drafted.”

Whether he’ll stay in Logan for a fifth year is a question Love’s not ready to answer.