The play unfolded in less than seven seconds, just enough time for a moment of instinct, a lesson in the art of linebacking.
Jake Love was supposed to blitz. That was the defensive call. It was late in the fourth quarter last Saturday, and Kansas was protecting a 17-10 lead against Central Michigan. On a third-and-12, Love, a junior linebacker, was supposed to hit the edge and pursue Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush.
But in the seconds after the snap, Love approached the line of scrimmage and peeled to his left, away from a blocking offensive tackle. Something didn’t feel right, he thought. Moments later, he had snuffed out a screen play, turning the play into a loss. Central Michigan was forced to punt, helping preserve the Jayhawks’ eventual 24-10 victory.
“It wasn’t going to be a good blitz anyway if I continued,” Love says. “So I smelled the rat.”
Yes, the rat. It’s a phrase you hear often from KU coaches and players. In the heat of a play, KU coach Charlie Weis wants his players to be instinctive, to trust what they see and feel.
“The phrase we always say,” Weis says, “if you smell a rat, it’s a rat, OK.”
Translation: Love is adept at smelling out the rat.
On another day, in another situation, the instinctive football play might have been lost in the pixels of game film, just another solid defensive moment in a momentum-building victory. But Love coupled the play with two other key tackles in the waning minutes. And for KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, it was a microcosm of the work Love puts in each week.
“I don’t know if Jake gets enough credit for all of the things he does,” Bowen says. “He shows up every week and does really good things for us. I was happy to see him put together a string of three plays that other people noticed, because he does so many things that we love in our defensive room that other people may not see how truly valuable he is.”
Perhaps it makes sense. To see Love walking on campus is to see a figure that could easily blend into a crowd. He stands just 6 feet tall, carrying his 220-pound frame in a way that makes him look a few pounds lighter. There is a boyish growth of blonde perma-stubble on his cheeks. Yet, he strikes a workmanlike demeanor in the locker room.
“You just love guys like Jake Love, first of all,” Bowen says. “The guy shows up every day and works his tail off.”
The son of a football coach, Love grew up in tiny Tonkawa, Okla., a town of 3,200 people located about 75 miles south of Wichita. He was a wrestling standout in high school — the kind of guy that nobody wants to mess with — and Love brings some of that grappling mentality to the football field. But the instincts? Those probably came from his father, Steve.
“Just having a dad that’s a head coach growing up, you’re around the game 24-7,” Love says. “So you know offenses and what they try to do pretty well.”
Still just a junior, Love is coming off a season in which he made eight starts, recorded 58 tackles and led Kansas with five quarterback hurries. In three games this season, Love leads the Jayhawk defense with five tackles for loss and has added one sack. And yet…
“I don’t think I’ve been as consistent as I want to be,” Love says. “I want to be more consistent.”
The same, of course, could be said about the Kansas defense. Last Saturday, the Jayhawks held the Chippewas to just 2.9 yards per rushing attempt, their best performance to date. And according to advanced metrics, the KU defense has — at least in some areas — been one of the most consistent units in the country.
According to the website Football Outsiders, KU ranks 18th nationally in Success Rate, a metric that measures how often a defense is “successful” on each play. The Jayhawks, though, have been susceptible to the big play, dragging down their overall numbers. But Bowen sees reason to be hopeful as Kansas, 2-1, prepares to face Texas, 1-2, at 3 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
“A lot of things that showed up in the first two games that gave up big plays are starting to get corrected,” Bowen says. “We have to keep working, but I feel like the kids are doing a nice job of working and coming together and are learning to play within the system.”
Sometimes, of course, playing within the system means playing on instincts. Sometimes, as Love say, it’s about smelling the rat.
“I think we just played a lot harder,” Love said. “We all swarmed to the ball. Any time you’re swarming to the ball, it’ll correct a lot of mistakes.”