CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When news struck on Monday that Stanford star running back Christian McCaffrey would forego playing in the Sun Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft, it opened up a national discussion on the ethics of the move.
One of the few sides not partaking in the argument was North Carolina, who will face the Stanford Cardinal in El Paso on Dec. 30.
With less than two weeks until the kickoff of the bowl game, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik says that his number one goal is to have his team prepared, regardless of who is suiting up on the other side.
The man who will be taking the load of carries in McCaffrey’s place is sophomore running back Bryce Love. The Wake Forest, N.C. native has impressed behind McCaffrey this season, rushing for 664 yards and three touchdowns on 90 carries.
Love’s skills were on display when he started for an injured McCaffrey back in October when Stanford faced Notre Dame. The 5-foot-10 back rushed for 129 yards on 23 carries to propel his team to a 17-10 victory.
Chizik says that his defense has to take Love just as seriously as McCaffrey.
“He’s a very talented young man,” Chizik said after Tuesday’s practice. “Got great speed, good vision, very good cuts. He’s played a lot of football; he’s rushed for over 600 yards. He’s got a lot of talent and skill at the tailback position and a lot of the intangibles that you need. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, you can put him out there as a wideout.”
The main asset of Love’s game that may cause problems for UNC’s defense is the sophomore’s quickness. The 187-pound running back was a record-breaking track runner back in his high school days and also posted a 4.4 second 40-yard dash time before he went to Stanford.
That type of quickness gives the the Tar Heel defense something to work on in the next two weeks, according to senior defensive end Mikey Bart.
“We know he’s really fast, he’s really speedy out there,” Bart said. “He makes quick cuts, so we’re going to really get our track angles right tackling-wise. We’ve got to get 11 people to the ball because he’s got that big play potential every time he touches it.”
With the skillset that Love possesses, it proves difficult to not compare him to the man above him in the depth chart.
“I think he’s just as explosive as McCaffrey,” sophomore linebacker Andre Smith said. “Watching the Notre Dame game where McCaffrey was hurt, (Love) made just as many plays so he’s just as dangerous.”
“He’s on scholarship too, he’s not a slap,” senior defensive tackle Nazair Jones said. “He’s definitely going to make plays in McCaffrey’s place.”
With two players so similar in stature and nature, it makes the adjustment in game preparation easy, if not nonexistent, according to Bart.
“It doesn’t change it at all,” Bart said. “We’re just approaching it like he’s still playing. (McCaffrey)’s a good player but they have other good players that will step in for him so it’ll be a good challenge.”
While some UNC defenders may be thankful they avoided facing the 2015 Heisman finalist, others saw the news that McCaffrey, who’s rushed for 1,603 yards this season, would sit out the Sun Bowl as a missed opportunity.
“To be honest, it was kind of disappointing,” junior cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “I really wanted to play against him because he’s a really good player and potential first round draft pick. For me, I always love to play against top notch people.”
Smith’s disappointment came out of the lost chance to add to the list of top rushers he’s faced.
“Sometimes you want to play against some of the elite players,” Smith said. “He was up for the Heisman. Dalvin Cook, James Conner, Nick Chubb, playing against all of those guys helps me measure up on what I need to work on and how I am.”
Regardless of who shows up to play on Dec. 30, Chizik says that his defense is coming to face the Stanford Cardinal team.
“We’re going in to win the game,” he said. “We’re not going to tailor the game for any specific individual.”