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Eighteen months ago, when they traded up to land a raw yet physically gifted quarterback late in the first round, the Green Bay Packers surprised a lot of people with their eagerness to embrace a future without Aaron Rodgers.
Among the most stunned was the 21-year-old former Utah State star that the team anointed as Rodgers’ eventual successor.
Until his phone rang on draft night, Jordan Love didn’t think the Packers would consider taking a quarterback so early. Nor did the friends and family members who joined Love to watch the first round in his mother’s Bakersfield, California, living room.
“We had no clue,” Steve Calhoun, Love’s longtime quarterback coach, told Yahoo Sports. “We were like, ‘The Packers? What?’ It was a huge surprise to all of us.”
The first real chance for Love to validate Green Bay’s faith in him arrives on Sunday afternoon when the Packers visit the Kansas City Chiefs. Love is expected to make his first NFL start with Rodgers reportedly COVID-19 positive and in the league’s 10-day testing protocol for unvaccinated players.
If Love can seize this window to showcase his readiness, he provides the Packers front office more ammunition to move on from Rodgers and promote him to starter after this season. If Love falters, it muddies the Packers’ long-term future and raises questions about their controversial draft-day decision to invest in a quarterback instead of a receiver or lineman who could have helped right away and extended Rodgers’ championship window.
Asked on Wednesday if Love is prepared to play in one of the NFL’s most hostile environments and to face an opponent that has reached the past two Super Bowls, Packers coach Matt LaFleur chuckled before telling reporters, “We’ll find out, right?” LaFleur went on to say that the Packers “have a lot of confidence in [Love]” and that the second-year quarterback is “excited” for the challenge.
“We talked about having that no-flinch mentality,” LaFleur said, “and I didn’t see any flinch in him.”
That even-keeled mindset is one reason those close to Love believe he’s uniquely qualified to handle the pressure that comes with being groomed as Aaron Rodgers’ heir apparent. Whether it’s family tragedy or being told over and over that he’s too skinny to play college football, Love has been through worse than being a legend’s understudy or eventual replacement.
Love is overlooked
Almost a decade ago, the new football coach at Liberty High School became intrigued by a freshman quarterback who he inherited. Bryan Nixon called a quarterback guru who he trusted and asked him to help the young teen reach his potential.
The wisp of a boy that Steve Calhoun began working with in 2013 bears little resemblance to the laser-armed second-year pro who will start for the Packers on Sunday. Jordan Love entered high school at 5-foot-6, 130 pounds, the physique of a future accountant, not an NFL prospect.
Love’s grasp of how to play quarterback was still in its infancy when tragedy threatened to send him spiraling. Orbin Love, Jordan’s father and a veteran of the Bakersfield Police Department, died by suicide in July 2013 when his son was only 14 years old.
In the wake of his father’s death, football became Love’s escape. He devoted himself to learning the nuances of the quarterback position and forged strong bonds with his Liberty High School teammates, especially several who had also lost family members.
“He used football as a release,” Nixon told Yahoo Sports. “He had an extended family there that was able to support him and get him through that time. His immediate family was always there, but this allowed him to get away and go play a game he really enjoyed.”
While Love did shoot up to 6-foot as a junior and 6-foot-2 as a senior, he sprouted too suddenly for his body weight to catch up. He never exceeded 170 pounds during high school, not even with teammates force feeding him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or protein shakes.
The timing of Love’s late growth spurt helps explain why so many colleges overlooked him even after he threw for more than 4,000 yards and rushed for more than 1,000 as a junior and senior and capped his high school career with a sectional championship.
In an era when college coaches hone in earlier and earlier on their quarterback targets, many had already identified which Class of 2016 prospects they wanted to pursue by the time Love began to display promise. Even those coaches who were still scrambling to find a quarterback to anchor their recruiting classes questioned if Love was too slender and gangly to be the answer.
“They’d all say that they liked this or that about him but that he’s not there,” Nixon said. “What we kept telling them was, ‘He’s going to be there. He’s going to continue to grow.’ ”
In the end, only one FBS school had the foresight to envision how good Love could be at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. That’s how a late-blooming future first-round pick wound up accepting a scholarship offer from an unheralded Mountain West program that is typically third in relevance in its own state.
Utah State finds a diamond in the rough
The summer before his senior year in high school, Utah State invited Love to visit campus and participate in the school’s elite camp.
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel liked Love’s game tape and that he was young for his grade, but he wanted to evaluate the quarterback in person before deciding whether to recommend offering a scholarship.
Spending a couple days around Love in camp was all the convincing that Heupel needed. He saw a quarterback who had tight throwing mechanics and the athleticism to move within the pocket or to make a play with his feet. He saw a student who was open to coaching and able to quickly apply it. And he saw a fierce competitor who was passionate about football and eager to do whatever was necessary to become the best version of himself.
“The toughest thing in recruiting is to be able to project and understand what guys are going to be like three, four years down the road,” Heupel told Yahoo Sports, “but we felt like he had the potential to really grow and mature inside our program.” Heupel, now the Tennessee head coach, added, “We felt that he had a really high ceiling.”
While Heupel left to become the offensive coordinator at Missouri without ever coaching Love, Utah State reaped the benefits of his shrewd talent evaluation. Love enrolled as a 17-year-old in January 2016 and instantly demonstrated that he was the self-starter that Heupel envisioned.
Over the next 18 months, Love overhauled his diet, packed on muscle in the weight room, learned Utah State’s offense inside and out and spent much of his free time in the film room. By the start of his redshirt freshman season, the Utah State staff had an inkling they had uncovered a future NFL prospect.
When David Yost became Utah State’s offensive coordinator in February 2017, other coaches raved about the redshirt freshman with the best arm on the team. Yost, who had coached Justin Herbert at Oregon and Blaine Gabbert at Missouri, watched Love throw a few times and quickly realized the young quarterback had comparable arm talent.
“I told Coach [Matt] Wells early, ‘He’s like that,’” Yost recalled. “He’s in that group of guys.”
Some of the throws Love completed during practice were ones Utah State’s other quarterbacks wouldn’t dare attempt.
“His arm strength was exceptional,” Yost told Yahoo Sports. “He could flick the wrist and make any throw that you want. And he could do it on the move.”
What Yost emphasized during his two seasons with Love was improving his accuracy by getting him to throw from a more balanced position. Love thrived as a redshirt sophomore, starting all 13 games, completing 64 percent of his passes and throwing for 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. Utah State went 11-2 that season and won the New Mexico Bowl.
A coaching change and the graduation of many other key offensive players contributed to Love producing a much more erratic redshirt junior season, but NFL buzz remained strong despite his 17 interceptions. While some scouts had concerns about his facepalm plays, others gushed over the ease of his throwing motion, his success throwing on the run and his knack for zipping passes to receivers from a multitude of arm slots.
When the Packers called Yost about Love, the former Utah State offensive coordinator assured them that Love could thrive in the high-profile, high-pressure role of Rodgers’ heir apparent.
“He’ll get better without being the guy because he’ll put in legitimate real work,” Yost told Packers officials “From when he gets on the practice field, to when he’s in the quarterback room, to what he does on his own, he’ll do what he can to make himself better.”
Rodgers reaches out
In the wake of the Packers’ draft night stunner, as speculation ramped up over how Rodgers felt about sharing the quarterback room with his hand-picked successor, Love received a call from an unfamiliar number.
“Aaron calls,” Calhoun recalled, “and says, ‘Hey, congratulations, welcome to the team!’”
That brief conversation helped ease Love’s nerves in the coming weeks when Rodgers told reporters, “Not going to say I was thrilled by the pick.” Or when he told the NFL Network that he reached for a bottle of tequila and poured himself “four fingers” after learning that Love was the Packers’ selection.
Love, according to those who know him, understood that Rodgers’ beef was not with him. It was with the team for not relaying to him that it was considering taking a quarterback and for failing to get him more help coming off a 13-win season that ended in the NFC title game.
While Love hasn’t spoken with reporters often since coming to Green Bay, he said last June that he and Rodgers “have a good relationship” and that learning from him has been “very valuable.” The quarterbacks maintained regular contact even as Rodgers didn’t report to training camp this past summer and weighed whether to play for the Packers this season if they didn’t trade him.
It’s no surprise to Yost that Love appears to have handled a tense situation so well. Love was on the other side of a changing of the guard at Utah State when he gradually wrested the starting job away from senior Kent Myers in 2017.
“He was best friends with the starter and they stayed best friends,” Yost said. “Even after Jordan took his job, they would still go out and warm up for the game together.”
In a way, Rodgers’ offseason absence actually helped prepare Love for Sunday’s opportunity. The second-year pro received the bulk of the first-team reps during OTAs and the preseason after the pandemic wiped out both last season.
Rodgers supplemented that during the offseason by throwing with Calhoun and a trio of NFL receivers two or three times a week. Love would send videos of his workouts to his Packers coaches. They would respond back with concepts and routes they wanted him to emphasize.
The byproduct of Love’s hard work was an up-and-down preseason in which he made some mistakes yet also flashed promise. In two games, he completed 24 of 35 passes for 271 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Getting that game experience can only help Love this Sunday, as will his greater command of the playbook and confidence being a vocal leader. He prepared this summer like he was going to start for the Packers because there was no guarantee Rodgers would be in uniform.
This game may be an opportunity for Love to showcase himself as the future of the Packers and validate their polarizing decision to draft him, but you can bet that Love doesn’t view it that way. He’ll just shrug off the outside noise and try to do what he can to help his team win, which is part of the reason he is so well suited for this high-pressure, high-profile role.
“He’s uniquely prepared to be in this position stepping into huge shoes,” Heupel said. “He’s the rare guy who can handle that entire process.”