Love's backup plan
FOXBOROUGH - It wasn’t the easiest concept for David Turner to wrap his head around, but by Kyle Love’s logic it made perfect sense.
The way Love tells it, it was a game day at Mississippi State and the Bulldogs were expecting Love to line up at nose tackle and slam a few offensive linemen together like action figures.
Love was thinking about how awful the last week of practice had been, and how he didn’t deserve to be on the field.
He went to Turner, his defensive line coach, and said, “Coach, take something away from me.’’
By “something,’’ Love meant snaps - a play or two, maybe a series even.
Turner, not exactly following the reasoning, asked, “Why?’’
He thought maybe Love had been bitten by injury, but Love was looking for motivation. There was something blue collar about being a backup. When Love arrived at Mississippi State, he had to earn every second of the seven games he played as a freshman. Then, as a sophomore, he started nine games. His junior year, he started twice. His senior year, he started 10 of 12 games.
There was always a difference, he said. Not starting meant that whenever he did see the field, he had to prove he deserved to stay out there.
“It was just something I did mentally to make me play with an edge,’’ he said. “I just came out and I played hard. It’s always been like that.’’
“Whatever his motivation, whatever his reason, I thought it was the right thing for him to do,’’ said Turner. “I don’t know, if I was in his shoes, if I’d have done it. But it was the right thing to do.’’
Love, undrafted when he came out of Mississippi State last year, is in an earn-everything situation with the Patriots. His gridiron IQ and his run-stopping ability make him a likely successor to Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork. But he’s willing to watch and wait.
“I always felt like I had that chip on my shoulder, like I’m the underdog, like I’m overlooked,’’ Love said. “Even here, if I start or don’t start, I just play hard. But if I don’t start, I’m going to play harder.’’
Bit of a late bloomer
Love wasn’t the darling of recruiting. Every so often, the dot.com recruiting giants would sweep through North Clayton High School in College Park, Ga., but they never aimed their cameras at him.
“They didn’t pay him a lot of attention,’’ his father, Anthony, recalled. “I guess as a parent we didn’t know much about getting the film out and stuff like that. We just kind of figured his talent would shine and somebody would notice him.’’
They noticed one of North Clayton’s linebackers and another defensive lineman.
Love stood 6 feet 1 inches, weighed 310 pounds, and played both sides of the football, but flew under the radar.
He wasn’t flooded with college offers. A few form letters from schools would show up in his mailbox. He wrote them off.
“My dad always told me not to worry about the letters,’’ Love said. “I got a lot of letters, but letters don’t mean anything. They send that to everybody. The only time it actually matters is when they come to your house, they actually pursue you. They call you every day, they come visit.’’
There were only three, maybe four coaches who visited. Mississippi State’s Sylvester Croom was the first.
He asked, “Why isn’t anyone recruiting you?’’
Love told him, “I don’t know.’’
Croom flattered him, “You’re really good.’’
Love was open with Croom.
“To be honest with you, I’m lazy,’’ he said. “That’s probably the reason no one’s recruiting me.’’
He had talent, but needed to be pushed. When he got to Mississippi State, he was surrounded by workers. In fellow defensive lineman Reggie Odom, he had a health nut for a roommate. Odom worked out, ate right, and forced Love to do the same.
“It was times where I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to eat healthy. I want to sit down and relax,’ ’’ Love said. “He picked me up.’’
Turner arrived for Love’s sophomore season. They initially had an oil-and-water relationship.
“He wasn’t any different from most young players, you had to push him,’’ Turner said. “You could tell there was some ability there. That’s what a coach’s job is to try to get the most out of him, maximize his potential.
“I think early in his career, and I know early with me, he fought it, but I think he realized I was just trying to get him to be the best possible player he could be. It was just a maturation process. He started to mature and understand that I just wanted the best that I could get out of him and we were working toward the best thing.’’
Beyond his build, Turner knew Love had qualities that other linemen didn’t. He was intuitive, aware of what offenses wanted to accomplish and able to explain it to the coaching staff.
“Kyle was a student,’’ Turner said. “In 26 years of coaching, Kyle was the smartest D-lineman I’ve ever coached.’’
They butted heads, but by the end of Love’s time there they respected each other. Turner, now the defensive line coach at Kentucky, drove down to Georgia for Love’s wedding.
“I was tough on him,’’ Turner said. “And the reason I was tough on him was because he had the ability. And I’m proud of what he’s done.’’
Pushed to be the best
Almost every morning, a text from Anthony Love comes across Kyle’s cellphone, a digital dose of motivation.
One of the most recent ones read, “God does not want you to be good, because everybody’s good. God wants you to be great.’’
For every person pulling for you, someone pulls against.
Anthony remembered a conversation his wife, Miriam, just before Kyle left Mississippi State with head coach Dan Mullen, who took over for Croom when Kyle was a senior.
He told her that only one player - Anthony Dixon - would be drafted out of Mississippi State.
“Don’t even waste any time thinking about it,’’ Anthony Love remembered the coach saying.
“He just didn’t believe [Kyle] was going to be a professional player,’’ Anthony said.
Kyle was not drafted.
“So he took that up there, that underdog mentality,’’ Anthony said.
Last season, Anthony was constantly trying to find ways to motivate Kyle.
“It’s entirely up to you now to prove these naysayers wrong,’’ he said. “You can play the game.’’
He wanted to make sure that Kyle knew that because he was an undrafted free agent, he was different and he always would be.
The practice squad wasn’t enough.
“I know they say you’re a part of the team,’’ Anthony told him, “but really, you’re not. You have to make the 53-man roster.’’
Love played nine games as a rookie, with seven tackles and a sack.
This year, the conversations have a different theme.
“Every year you have to make it again,’’ he said. “You’re always having to make the team.’’
He came into training camp on a mission to prove something to coach Bill Belichick.
“I came in for camp this year knowing I was a backup guy,’’ he said. “I wanted to show Belichick I could play fast. I started seeing stuff faster, playing faster. I got a lot of compliments and just kept on doing it.’’
He’s played in all five games, and has eight tackles.
“He’ll tell you that he wants to be on the field,’’ Anthony Love said. “I’ve never seen him so highly motivated about this stuff.’’
When the injury report was released Thursday, Love (back) was listed as questionable.
“Is that a real injury?’’ said Anthony Love. “Is that going to stop you from playing?’’
Kyle said he was fine.
“I’m just trying to get better every day,’’ Love said. “Me being a guy that’s probably known to be a backup guy, whenever it’s time for me to step up and start or play, I’m there and I’m going to try to do the best I can.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.