GREENVILLE — Walk-on never really described senior cornerback and special teams performer Chris Love. Blessed with 4.3-second speed for 40 yards, the former state 4×100-meter relay champion from Wake Forest-Rolesville High School was more of a run-on.
Love’s status changed on Tuesday. The bigger news from the East Carolina football program that afternoon was that Gardner Minshew had emerged as the starter in the preseason quarterback competition and that strong safety Travon Simmons, who had 24 career starts, was planning to transfer.
Another announcement was made on the first floor of the Ward Sports Medicine Building, in the mini-auditorium meeting room that is to the immediate right coming through the entrance from the practice fields. It’s where Skip Holtz often did his postgame news conferences on the way to Conference USA championships in 2008 and 2009.
“It happened in the team meeting,” Love said. “Coach Mo (Scottie Montgomery) gave me a scholarship.”
Asked if he was surprised, Love said, “I just feel like I’ve still got a lot to do and a lot to prove. I’d say I’m more hungry than anything.”
The departure of Simmons may have freed up a grant for Love, who had four tackles in the first preseason scrimmage. He made a team-high seven stops and broke up a pass in last Saturday morning’s camp-closing action in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Getting a full ride at the outset of a new semester was special.
“Everybody jumped on me and showed a lot of happiness,” Love said. “It felt great.”
Montgomery said Love has value in areas other than what he brings to the field.
“Chris is a very strong person, first of all, to be able to battle for so many years as a nonscholarship athlete and now for us to work him into a position where he is a starter,” said the second-year Pirates coach. “He’s worked his way right into that starting lineup, worked really hard. Then also, he can help us in our return game
“He has a lot of versatility, but what I really like about Chris Love is the way he’s been able to bring the defensive back room together. He’s the guy who can joke with everybody and everybody likes to be around him. I’m proud of the football player he’s become, but also what he’s done for the locker room.”
Love’s dad, Chris, played football at South Carolina. His brother, Bryce, is a running back at Stanford.
“Football has always been huge in my family,” Love said. “It’s on TV or it’s being talked about, comparing the greats. . . . It’s always been a topic of conversation. It’s always been in our hearts as a family. We all work hard to reach goals.”
Love began playing very early.
“I started about the age of 5,” he said. “In middle school — sixth, seventh and eighth grade — I took a break and came back in high school.”
Love focused on track and field while he was in middle school.
Coming out of high school, Love had opportunities but few offers.
“I had a lot of interest,” Love said. “Even Coach Montgomery, he was at Duke at the time with Coach [David] Cutcliffe. That was one of my options. I had some FCS schools, Furman and some places like that. There were a lot of walk-on opportunities, preferred at UNC and stuff like that. I wasn’t really given anything. Everything I had to earn. . . . At the time, Ruffin McNeill was the coach [at ECU]. He came to my high school and seemed to be a real genuine guy and seemed to show a lot of love.
“He cared about more than me and football. He asked about my family and things like that, a lot of things that other places didn’t do. . . . God works in mysterious ways and I love it now. I love the atmosphere with Coach Mo and I think that we’ve got something incredible building.”
Former receiver, running back
Love was all-state in high school after running for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior. He paid his dues as a receiver and running back on the ECU scout team as a redshirt in 2013.
Love first appeared on the ECU radar in 2014 when he had a 71-yard scoring run in the Purple-Gold game.
“I want to find the end zone again,” Love said, recalling the moment.
He didn’t experience game-day duty as an active member of the roster in 2014. He made the move to the defensive unit during spring drills in 2015.
“I spent my whole life as a running back until my redshirt sophomore year,” Love said. “Just looking at the field from a defensive perspective was different at the time. I had to learn and get better every day. It was a lot of hard work but I found a home on defense. . . .
“Coach McNeill came to me and said he thought I could be a good DB. Looking back on it now, I think he was right. My uncle [Reggie] played [at UNC]. He always told me growing up I was a cornerback. I fought it to play running back. I love DB now.”
McNeill, now associate head coach and defensive line coach at Oklahoma, was a defensive back for the Pirates in his playing days.
Special team veteran
Love made one start at corner last year against Navy and had a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the season finale at Temple. He has scars atop his right shoulder from surgery and was held out of contact this past spring to allow recovery.
Love has seen extensive action on special team coverage and return units as a Pirate. He had nine tackles last year, including six solo stops. Six of his tackles came on kickoffs and one on the punt unit. Love and Joe Carter tied for the team lead in special teams tackles with seven each.
He returned 21 kickoffs last season for a team-high 445 yards. He had the team’s longest kickoff return of 42 yards at Tulsa.
“I feel like I can do anything that I’m asked to do and give my best at it,” Love said. “I had some opportunities to return kicks. I hope I still get to do that. I’m willing to help the team as best I can. I want to win. That’s all I’m about.”
Although Love will likely be playing more snaps than in the past on defense, special teams coach Shannon Moore said that probably won’t mean a reduction in special team assignments for Love.
“We’re always going to put the best guys out there and he’s going to be a core special teams guy for us,” Moore said. “He’s going to be on two or three units and he’s going to be a guy in the return game for us, too, like he was last year. His role is still going to be a lot like it was last year. He can be a two-, three-unit starter for us. We’ll kind of see how he progresses and just how he’s feeling on game day, but he’s going to be a guy who has a huge impact for us on special teams.”
Back on track
Love ran some track events for the Pirates last spring.
“I just ran about a 10.9 in the 100,” he said. “Nothing spectacular. I ran in high school but it’s been five years since I had run. The guys had been working for so long.
“I just tried to come out there and help if I could on the relay team. It was an extremely awesome experience, but the time off pushed me back from track a little bit. I’ve found more of a home with football.”
Offseason effort carries over
Love was committed to offseason strength and conditioning.
“I put my heart into it,” Love said. “This is my last go-around. I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. I’ve got dreams of making it to the NFL and I want to be able to say that I did my very best whether I do or don’t. I want to be able to look back and not have any regrets.”
Love, who is listed at 5 feet, 10 inches and 170 pounds, has bench pressed 330 pounds. He has a 36-inch vertical jump.
His bench press isn’t quite back to his max before the shoulder ding.
“Everything else is good,” he said.
Love’s efforts have gotten the attention of secondary coach Brandon Lynch.
“We were actually reading a sermon about two weeks ago and it was talking about the importance of training camp, talking about once the time comes the silver is ready for the silversmith,” Lynch said. “He’s worked very hard over the summer. He’s somebody that if you looked at from January to this point, has done a great job in the weight room. He’s done a great job in the classroom. It’s really reflected out there on the field for him.
“He’s earned it. He’s playing at a high level right now. Our three goals in the secondary is to play top down, tackle well in space and give good effort. He’s really exemplified those things.”
Defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson also is aware of the standard Love is setting.
“Chris has done an outstanding job,” Thompson said. “He’s done a really good job. He’s earned the right to be the first guy to run out. We appreciate him.”
The Pirates have had some injuries that have impacted the corner spots.
“We’ve also had some guys come back,” Thompson said. “We feel like we’ll be full strength when it’s time.”
Perspective on 2016
The Pirates went 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference in 2016, a disappointing effort, but the performance has served as motivation to be better in 2017.
“Last season, we kind of lost a lot of close games in the fourth quarter,” Love said. “I don’t know exactly what to point the finger to. We’ve improved a lot in team chemistry, the effort we give and the fight we have for each other. I think that alone will carry a long way as far as the season goes, trying to move past last year and, of course, put up a better record.”
Sun Bowl, Wake Forest 4-AA
The Pirates were denied bowl eligibility during Love’s junior season but it was still a meaningful postseason for the speedy corner.
His brother, Bryce Love, had 21 carries for 119 yards in Stanford’s 25-23 Sun Bowl win over North Carolina on Dec. 30, 2016.
“Any time my brother is playing, I’m his biggest fan,” Love said. “Anybody but East Carolina, I’m his biggest fan. Them beating Carolina, especially with it being Carolina and Bryce being a North Carolina native, was huge.”
Wake Forest and Rolesville are separate high schools now. Love watched Wake Forest, coached by Reggie Lucas, defeat Greensboro Page 29-0 for the NCHSAA 4-AA championship on Dec. 17, 2016 at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh.
“Wake Forest, that was huge,” Love said. ” . . . Wake Forest came a long way to win that. My sophomore year, 2010, we went to the state championship and we played Butler, back when Kris Frost (Auburn linebacker) was there and we lost pretty good. It might have been 44 to zero. The next time we went (2013), the other team (Mallard Creek) won (59-21). The next time we went, we won, so we inched closer and closer to finally get there. I’d like to think I had a part in the building blocks.
“All the coaches are still there. Some teammates were there. Dexter Lawrence (defensive lineman, Clemson) . . . he was a freshman when I was a senior. There was still one or two guys on the team that I still knew but to see all the coaches’ faces and to know how far Wake Forest came as a community because the west side of the state, they kind of get to pick their school a little bit, and we’re moreso districted. It says a lot that Wake Forest overcame all that.”
Love talked about goals for the upcoming season for the team and himself personally.
“As a team, we want to win the championship, the AAC championship,” Love said. “I don’t think anybody has their mind set to less than that.
“Individually, I want to contribute as much as I can and make all the plays that come my way.”
What will make the difference for the Pirates in 2017?
“Want,” Love said. “Want. I think everybody on the team is extremely hungry and is driving toward the same dream.”