Devin Studstill was an early-entry freshman. Defensive backs coach Todd Lyght marveled at Jalen Elliott’s football awareness and hunger to succeed.
Donte Vaughn brought exceptional length to the cornerback position, and Troy Pride Jr. was a fast-rising four-star prospect.
Julian Love -- the second player to commit to the Irish in the Class of 2016 -- was a three-star prospect from La Grange Park, Ill. out of Nazareth Academy. He was not rated among Scout’s top 300 prospects and was, by most standards, the least-regarded among the five incoming defensive backs.
There’s no shortage of Love at the Irish cornerback position now.
“Julian can tackle in space and he can cover,” said Lyght, now coaching the cornerbacks exclusively. “He’s done a great job ever since he stepped foot on campus.”
It was a rough September for Nick Coleman at cornerback, and the week that Brian VanGorder headed out the door, Love stepped into the starting lineup against Syracuse and never relinquished the spot over the final eight games.
Love was a revelation. Despite starting just two-thirds of Notre Dame’s games, he finished eighth on the squad in tackles with 45, including eight against Navy in Game 9 and a personal season-high nine in the finale against USC. Love even played safety against Army’s option attack in Game 10.
Love played a lot of linebacker and strong safety at Nazareth Academy, which is part of the reason there was skepticism that he could exist on an island at cornerback on the major college level.
But those doubts were dispelled in 2016 and even further this spring. Love stuffed the stat sheet with an interception (vs. Army), four passes broken up, one of eight of the team’s fumbles caused (vs. USC), one of six fumbles recovered (vs. Stanford), and two tackles for loss (one vs. Navy and ½ vs. Army and USC) over the final three games of the season.
In other words, Love made an impact every step of the way during his eight starts. Only five Irish defenders had more unassisted tackles than his 32.
“Probably after the Syracuse game,” said Love as to when he settled in as a freshman. “We played Stanford and after that game, I knew I was here for a reason. I was given a chance and I excelled. I just tried to have fun and think back to why I played football.”
Love credits his mother for the tenacity that he brought with him from La Grange to Notre Dame.
“My mom really taught me toughness,” Love said. “Many people think my dad did, but my mom always said that people would doubt me, so just ignore that and keep going, keep doing what I do best.”
At first, Love tried to deny that he was surprised by his rapid emergence as a freshman at Notre Dame. But even Love had to admit that his rise was rather meteoric with so much uproar surrounding the Irish defense.
“It was a huge surprise beginning in Week Four (five tackles vs. Duke), and then going home and everybody saying how crazy it was that I was playing so much,” Love said.
“It was so cool, so special. Now it’s time to win going forward and just make it even more fun.”
Love, well, loves playing football at Notre Dame. He’s surrounded by a bunch of quality cornerbacks, including Vaughn, Pride Jr., Nick Watkins and Shaun Crawford. The arrival of Mike Elko as defensive coordinator has lifted the cloud over the defense under Brian VanGorder.
When Love says he’s truly happy at Notre Dame and thrilled to be a part of the foundation moving forward, it’s blatantly obvious.
“I love it here,” Love said. “I really enjoy being around my teammates. I feel very confident now, or at least more confident than I did. Now I have some experience. I have a tremendous group of corners with me, so it’s not all on me.
“We had Donte, me and Troy playing as freshmen, and now having Nick Watkins and Shaun Crawford back, that’s five guys who have had experience and who can really play.”
Love calls Lyght “awesome.” Lyght would like to see Love dig a little deeper into his assets.
“We want him in a leadership role because he is a young player and he’s going to play a lot for us,” Lyght said.
“His big thing for me is to push myself when I’m tired, and still be able to communicate and make sure guys know what they’re doing,” Love said. “Hold guys accountable when I’m trying to focus on myself.”
Love lights up when he talks about Elko’s arrival at Notre Dame.
“He’s a great guy,” Love said. “There are no games being played. He’s straightforward, he really cares about us, and he wants to play fast and really get the fundamentals down. If you get the fundamentals down, everything else comes easier.”
Love’s effusiveness and genuine joy derived from all that comes his way in life is reminiscent of former Irish wideout Corey Robinson. There’s a free-and-easy nature to Love’s game as well as his demeanor off the field. It comes from his generally optimistic frame of mind and playing defense in a shackle-free environment.
“When you don’t have to think, you can play so much faster and be more aggressive,” Love said. “We’re trying to create more turnovers because we know what we’re doing. That will be seen.
“Tackling is huge, so we really hammer that in practice. It’s just playing ball, which is what got us all here. It’s all about the little things, the easy stuff that you can win with more than scheme.
“If a team can tackle well, they’re going to be good. I’ve always been a guy who loves contact. It’s fun. You’re just playing ball.”
And lovin’ every minute of it.