Few college coaches spent more time studying new Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love than Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson. The Demon Deacons opened the 2019 season with Utah State, which meant Clawson had eight months to dive into Love’s 32 touchdown passes during his scintillating 2018 season.
What stood out to Clawson, though, was standing on the field before their game in August. He watched Love throw laser spirals, and the ball spun through the air so crisply that it came accompanied by a soundtrack.
“It’s one of those things where the ball just sizzled,” Clawson told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview on Friday. “You’re out on the field and you can hear it — WOOSH! WOOSH!”
The Packers also liked what they heard. They traded up in the first round to take Love with the 26th pick in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft. The move sent shockwaves through the NFL, as it hinted at a potential expiration date on star quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
And around the country, it ushered the Utah State quarterback into the mainstream football conversation. The immediate focus came on Rodgers’ likely reaction to the organization focusing on someday replacing him instead of immediately helping him.
‘He has all the physical tools in the world’
Fittingly, the player many are envisioning sending a ripple through the quarterback room in Green Bay was viewed as a divisive talent by those who scouted him and played against him.
Here’s the promising part that Clawson saw: Love has a big arm, flashed bursts of special talent as Utah State went 11-2 in 2018 and showed a personal resiliency that’s endeared him to everyone around him. That’s balanced by a 2019 season that proved hard to watch at times, as a new coaching staff, the loss of nine offensive starters and ball security issues that included 17 interceptions and 13 fumbles. That turned Love from a compelling prospect into a confounding one.
“He has all the physical tools in the world, passes the eyeball test and the ball jumps off his hand,” said Kent State coach Sean Lewis, who played against Utah State in the Frisco Bowl. “You question the decision-making, the number of turnovers and how he’s valuing the football.”
That dichotomy that Lewis pointed out highlighted the contradictions that NFL teams needed to work through on Love. The Packers saw through the choppy 2019 performances and focused on the raw ability and arm talent. They’d been locked in on Love for a while and didn’t break stride.
Former Utah State coach Matt Wells told Yahoo Sports he got a call midway through this season about Love. Wells was in his first year at Texas Tech and knew it wasn’t normal for an NFL general manager like Green Bay’s Brian Gutekunst to have a long conversation about a player before the season was over. (He also asked Wells about Texas Tech linebacker Jordyn Brooks, who went the pick after Love on Thursday night to the Seattle Seahawks.)
“I don’t think they do that unless they think the kid is a potential first-rounder,” Wells said.
Green Bay’s interest included a trip to Baton Rouge for Utah State’s game at LSU on Oct. 5. Gutekunst scouted that game in person along with another high-ranking personnel staffer, Jon-Eric Sullivan. Love struggled in that 42-6 loss, throwing three interceptions and completing 15 of 30 passes for just 130 yards.
One NFL assistant who Yahoo Sports spoke with on Friday said he left that game actually impressed with Love. While there may have been garish individual numbers, they all need to be taken within the context of how distinct the mismatch was all over the field. (LSU had five first-round picks, while Love was the only Group of Five player chosen.)
“For the record, he played well against LSU,” said an NFL assistant coach who studied Love. “But somehow Utah State players are supposed to block and get open against LSU.”
‘I am surprised they’re comparing him to Mahomes’
Different coaches saw drastically differing things in Love. One opposing defensive coordinator lauded his natural talent.
“I think physically he’s as talented as any quarterback there was in the draft,” the coach said. “He may have the strongest arm or throw the ball as effortlessly as anyone.”
Another opposing defensive coach disagreed, as he left the game unimpressed.
“I am surprised they’re comparing him to Mahomes,” the coach said. “He’s got a slower release, and I don’t think his arm is as strong as these guys are saying.”
The consensus on Love’s development comes with how he transitions to an NFL game that’s exponentially more sophisticated than the offenses he played in during college. In 2018 at Utah State, much of Love’s success came under Wells and coordinator David Yost. It was predicated largely on tempo — think a hybrid of Mike Leach’s Washington State Air Raid offense souped up with Oregon’s tempo under Mark Helfrich.
Those offenses rely on tempo to the point of simplicity. Hard to argue with the results, as Utah State went 11-2 in 2018 and ragdolled North Texas, 52-13, in the New Mexico Bowl. Love, a redshirt sophomore that year, threw for 3,567 yards, 32 touchdowns and six interceptions.
While the opposing coaches varied on their talent prognostications, they all agreed that Love’s transition to managing the game pre-snap at the line of scrimmage will ultimately determine his NFL future. Some drives at Utah State, the Aggies would be in the same formation on every play to blaze down the field.
Love existed like many modern college quarterbacks, rushing to the line of scrimmage and then looking over to get the so-called “perfect play” from the sideline. That comes after the coordinator could study the defense. This is why a so-called NFL redshirt year — or years, really — will be beneficial to Love.
‘He’s confident, but he’s not cocky’
Utah State’s dip to 7-6 in 2019 can be attributed to a confluence of reasons. New coach Gary Andersen came in with new coordinator Mike Sanford and attempted to keep the offense, which was ideal in concept but trickier in execution. Love’s touchdowns dipped to 20 and interceptions rose to 17, as Sanford said they needed to take risks to win games.
“There was a little bit of recklessness of how we called games and took the handcuffs of him,” Sanford said.
Love is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and came to Utah State in large part because it was his only scholarship offer. He was recruited by then-Aggies OC Josh Heupel, now the head coach at UCF.
Those around him feel like the uncertainty and awkwardness of potentially replacing Rodgers won’t faze him.
“I think he’ll be fine,” Wells said. “He’ll walk in. He’ll be who he is. He’s confident, but he’s not cocky. He’s quiet but not shy. And he’s a great teammate.”
And he’ll need to convert folks like he did Clawson after Utah State’s season opener last season. Wake Forest won the game 38-35, and Clawson left the field with the same feeling he did after playing ACC opponents like Jameis Winston, Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson.
“He was so accurate and so good putting balls in tight windows,” Clawson said. “I said, ‘We just played an NFL quarterback.’ ”
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