"Because I'm a little lighter now," the senior defensive tackle says. "So I've got something to smile about!"
A lot to smile about because Love is a lot lighter. The guy who has, happily by the way, hauled the inevitable nickname of ‘Love Boat' around campus for three seasons is suddenly much more ship-shape and steaming full-speed ahead into the senior campaign.
"I've lost about 20 pounds during this off-season, and got about ten more to go," he reports. "I'm at 312 right now, they want me at 305." Which is impressive enough…only Love has even higher, or if you prefer lower, aspirations for the summer scales. "I'm trying to get down around 295 or something."
Whoa there, big fella. Isn't there some obvious concerns that too much of a good thing might leave, well, too little of a good lineman? Not really, Love insists. That ‘295 or something' would be quite sufficient to the demands of SEC duty at the point of contact. Besides, there is a personal ambition involved now. "The smallest since I've been here is I think 304 and I'm trying to beat that little record I guess. The last time I saw 300 was probably 12th grade!"
What really matters of course is that whichever side of that number Love intends to make the biggest impact of his college career here in the last go-round. And, that based on what he saw during and after the first spring with this new coaching staff the entire Bulldog defensive line is thinking big in '09. Really big. Far bigger than a not-to-be-named analyst who has provided some proverbial locker-room motivation.
"Coach (David) Turner sent all us a message, that the experts say we have the worst d-linemen in the SEC. So we're trying to prove everybody wrong and show them even though we have a lot of young guys that don't have as much experience we can also play."
For that matter there's quite a few veteran Dogs who have earned their letters playing these tough down-lineman roles. Seven, to be specific, on the spring roster with a couple of seniors and two more juniors. Yes, there are newer names and younger faces being counted on as well. But considering that they include redshirts who've had the luxury of spending a year to develop, instead of getting tossed into instant action as their peer were; and one of the newcomers is already a junior (transfer) and a starter…well, those forecasters with the low opinion of Bulldog d-line potential might ought to be more careful with their projections.
"Actually I think we look pretty good," Love says. "Everybody is looking pretty good right now." One needn't be a defensive lineman to agree with his evaluation either, because over the course of spring camp this unit earned plenty of favorable comments. Starting with the sheer depth, something lacking at State in recent seasons. "We do have a lot of bodies," Love agrees.
Beginning with the bigger bodies inside. Love emerged from his final State spring first at left tackle (side means little as everybody swapped back-and-forth) though as many days as not it was classmate Charles Burns getting the initial snap there. More certain is the status of juco Pernell McPhee as a first-teammer at the other tackle slot. "He's going to get to the top of the rotation quickly," says Love, "he looks real good out there. Then we have Reggie Odom, LaMarcus Williams, Rodney Prince. And Devin Jones is probably going to play on the interior a little bit." This after Jones worked mostly at end for the first three weeks of spring. But then that kid also exemplifies the versatility Coach Turner and coordinator Carl Torbush have to play with now, inside and outside. Love may be busy inside but he has seen enough of d-ends to be equally optimistic there as well.
"Nick Bell has made a lot of improvement, I'm proud of him. Shane McCardell is making a lot of improvement, I'm trying to teach him every day how to use speed off the end and tell him how Titus Brown used to come off the ball. Brandon Cooper is coming around, Sean Ferguson I've been working with him and he's doing a lot of things. Trevor Stigers." And then there are the really new kids, Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox, who might not have been in a real practice yet but are making their names in summer strength workouts. No wonder Love is thinking about all sorts of sets come the season.
Such as letting McPhee line up at an end and attack passers as he did in junior college. "Hey, I like him at both, he's a good rusher off the end and inside." Speaking of which, Love got to take some spring-turns as the only inside Dog; playing nose-tackle when State occasionally practiced a true odd-front in pass pressure settings. He, fellow big guy LaMarcus Williams, Bell, Jones, et.al. rotated and showed what fresh legs can mean in terms of getting push up the middle. No wonder Love raves about that set to the point he wants it stressed in any story.
"I hope the coaches read this: I love the three-man front, put extra emphasis on that!" he insists. "But it's a great front, it gives us a chance to do different things and different stunts with the front-three and the linebackers, you never know what's coming at you. It opens up a lot for the defense." Speaking of a lot, Love sees plenty of promising combinations that can get the job done; to the point he dismisses discussion of the summer depth chart as meaningless.
"It really doesn't even matter to us, you can put anybody down. Coach could put me on second string and I don't care, I just want to play here. I love Mississippi State and I love playing for these coaches and this team. Whoever starts and whoever doesn't we're going to keep it rotating with fresh bodies in, everybody is going to play and we're all going to make plays and win games."
Spoken like a Dog who cares more about the bigger picture. Yet this is a clue to Love's overall outlook for his senior season, and the expectations placed on him by the staff. "They say I'm the smartest guy on the d-line!" he grins. "I wouldn't say that much, but Coach Turner has taught me a lot. He always tell me ‘come on Coach Love, get your guys up'. And I try to help." If one wonders, Love indeed is majoring in teaching/coaching and wouldn't mind a G.A. post at his alma mater after pro football. That's a bit too far ahead to look for now because this senior season is everything Love has spent his career working for. No wonder he isn't worried about whose name is atop the depth chart.
"I just want everybody to play well. Not putting anybody down but my freshman year the older class didn't really try to help us as much. I'm the kind of guy that I want to help everybody, because we all have to play and we all have to win. If the young guys don't know better than we all look bad so I'm going to teach them what I know."
Not that he isn't still learning finer points himself, such as practicing on both sides of center so he can alternate as needed. By the way, Love says he talked with '08 grad Cortez McCraney who reported his spring camp with Baltimore turned tough because he had to work an unfamiliar side with the ‘wrong' hand on the ground compared to his college experience. Love and others coming out will at least have gotten comfortable on both sides. For that matter Love says this past spring was his best, partly because that line-depth meant nobody got worn-down or badly injured. This doesn't mean the d-linemen took it easy when they did take a stance. Just the opposite. "In the locker room we hit this metal plate every day that says ‘Give Relentless Effort.' You only tap it if you're going to give relentless effort, that's all Coach Mullen asks of us." Though Love says something else needs posting in the locker room now, that demeaning opinion of the Dog defensive line. "I'm going to print that out," he says.
But Love is not nearly so sensitive about his weight…though he also admits it can be a bit annoying when teammates not having to manage their menus so closely make a point of showing off their selections. "Yeah, when we're out eating at the cafeteria and I see all these guys piling up their plate, two or three plates; and they'll say to me get one plate! Or if I put something wrong on my plate they're like no, put that back! It kind of hurts my feeling sometimes but I know that I need it, I know it's the best for me. So I shrug it off, eat what I need to eat, and try to lose weight like I'm supposed to."
Besides, even in a newer and smaller edition, nothing is going to slow this Love Boat as he steams through the SEC this senior fall.