The room fell silent as soon as the phone finally rang.
They had waited a long time for that call.
Julian Love had felt their stares. From his family and friends. His Notre Dame teammates. His high school coach.
They surrounded him Friday night and again Saturday at his draft party in the Palmer House hotel in Chicago. And there they waited, stealing glances to see how he was holding up as name after name was called at the NFL Draft, just not Love’s.
“When everyone’s telling him he’s going in the second or third [round] and it didn’t happen, everybody in the room was a little disappointed,” said Tim Racki, Love’s high school coach at Nazareth Academy in LaGrange Park, Ill. “We wanted him to have his night.”
After all, Love was a consensus All-American cornerback. The heart of a Notre Dame defense that went 12-1 and reached the national semifinals. A defense that collapsed the moment he left that game against Clemson due to injury.
But finally on Saturday, Giants coach Pat Shurmur made that phone call. The team has already hinted it visualizes the fourth-round pick as its slot corner, despite allowing Love to fall to the third day and 108th selection of the draft.
“He’ll internalize that. I know how he is,” Racki said of Love’s draft slide. “This is where that mental toughness comes in. He didn’t let it rattle him. He’ll use that as motivation when he trains, when he studies. It’s going to be added fuel for him to succeed.”
Being overlooked has been a common theme in Love’s young career.
But so has turning those slights into quiet motivation.
Motivation to earn an offer from Notre Dame despite hailing from a small high school as a relatively unheralded recruit. Motivation to start as a freshman and then develop into one of the best corners in college football. And now motivation to prove himself at the highest level despite questions about his athleticism.
“He’s a kid who’s had to earn everything he’s gotten,” said Bryan Driskell, football analyst at Blue & Gold Illustrated, a news outlet covering Notre Dame athletics. “He had to kind of earn his Notre Dame scholarship. He made visits and really pushed for it. He wasn’t a top-of-the-board recruit.”
But the 5-foot-11, 195-pound cornerback does have gifts to work with.
Despite an unimpressive 40-yard dash time at the scouting combine (4.54, which he cut to 4.45 at Notre Dame’s pro day), Love finished fifth among all prospects in the three-cone drill (6.72). It measures how an athlete changes direction at high speed, a critical measure for defensive backs.
He has fluid hips, quick feet and a low, smooth backpedal.
“I think the Giants got a steal because a lot of people think Julian Love is what he is, that he’s a finished product. I don’t agree with that,” Driskell said.
But of course, that means there are areas to improve on, including his technique. And at Notre Dame, he played mostly on the outside, not in the slot.
However, Love has a high football IQ, sharp instincts and is a fast learner. The Westchester, Ill. native has good vision and processes routes quickly. And he is adept playing off-coverage and driving on routes.
It explains why he was a first-team All-American — along with new teammate and first-round pick Deandre Baker. He is Notre Dame’s all-time leader in pass break-ups (39), including 36 in his last two seasons.
He also was a finalist for the 2018 Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back after making 63 tackles and 16 pass breakups. He left Notre Dame with one season of eligibility remaining.
“Julian Love is a really, really good football player,” Shurmur said. “He can play in the slot. He can play high. He’s kind of got that tweener kind of corner/safety ability, which makes him a unique player for us.”
He will get his chance to show it starting Friday, when the Giants begin their rookie mini-camp.
“I did not expect it to be the fourth round. I thought I was going to be a Day 2, second round, third round-type of guy,” Love told WFAN radio on Tuesday. “I’m a believer in everything happens for a reason. I was meant to be on the Giants. I was meant to make a difference here. …
“It is actually motivation to go later than you expected. So you have a chip on your shoulder to prove people wrong.”
The play was called Golden Domer.
The concept was simple. Let Love — by then a Notre Dame commit — do whatever he wanted for Nazareth.
“People would ask, ‘What’s the Golden Domer call?’” Racki said. “Literally what Golden Domer meant was he got to line up and go wherever he wanted on the field. He could line up at D-end. Linebacker. He could go play safety. That’s how good his instincts were.”
The coaching staff would save the call for special situations.
“It worked,” Racki said with a laugh.
Love recorded 92 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2015 as Nazareth won its second straight Illinois High School Association Class 5A Championship.
He also played running back, quarterback and receiver. He rushed for 1,067 yards and 18 touchdowns on 104 carries and had 662 receiving yards and seven touchdown catches.
“I likened it to him being a superhero,” Racki said. “He was very mild-mannered in the school, but when he put that helmet on, he became a superhero.”
And Love was also a big-game player at Notre Dame.
He had a pick-six in 2017 against a 10-win Michigan State team and another against a nine-win NC State team. Both resulted in victories.
And he scooped up a fumble and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown last season in a blowout road victory over a ranked Virginia Tech team.
“He just had a knack for making plays in big moments,” Driskell said. “When a play needs to be made, he was going was to be able to make it. I don’t think you can teach that.”
Love has not changed, according to those who know him. That is a big plus for coaches who love their players to be the same every day — especially when the same means upbeat and focused.
Love also meets general manager Dave Gettleman’s search for high-character players. Once a hallmark of the Giants locker room, the trend fell off in the final years of the Jerry Reese era.
The tradition includes Harry Carson, Justin Tuck and Michael Strahan.
“He acted the same way with the media and people around campus as a first-team All-American last year as he did when he was a freshman and one of the middle-of-the-road recruits in the class,” Driskell said. “Take the football piece of it aside, the Giants added a really quality young man to their organization.”
Racki says he lost count as to how many times people called him since Love became a high-profile figure and asked, “Is he really that nice? Is he really that sincere?”
“I’ve been getting those calls for six years,” he said. “Every time, it’s like, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! He is. I told you: He’s a great football player, but he’s also a great young man.’
“If you look on Wikipedia for sincere and genuine, his picture is going to be there. But he’s an assassin on the football field.”
The NFL learning curve expects to be steep for him, just like it is for most rookies. But Love has an uncanny knack for remaining calm and composed.
Racki found Love at halftime of a “monster game” he was having as a junior with his eyes closed.
“I turn to one of his teammates and I’m like, ‘What’s going on with him?’” he said. “And the kid casually says, ‘Coach, he always takes a nap at halftime. You didn’t know that?’
“After the game I was like, ‘I didn’t know you take catnaps at halftime.’ Julian goes, ‘No coach, just getting back into the zone.’”
Notre Dame was even with Clemson on the scoreboard and on the field.
The Cotton Bowl was tied, 3-3, early in the second quarter with both offenses sputtering.
Then Love went out with a head injury.
And then came the Fighting Irish collapse.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw three quick touchdown passes before halftime — with all three involving Love’s replacement in coverage.
“We noticed [Love] didn’t come back out there,” Lawrence said after the game in late December. “We didn’t know if he was hurt for sure. Then he stayed out for a while. … We identified that.”
That said, there’s plenty of room for improvement for Love.
His 40 time and some deficiencies in his technique precipitated his draft slide.
First and foremost, he has to play tighter coverage, something he did not do often at Notre Dame, said Driskell, a former Division III coach.
That means more consistency in his footwork, as he sometimes was a step late on in routes, for instance. That also means improving his hand technique.
And it means playing better angles when receivers work inside him.
All of those areas are critical in the slot.
“I thought he should have come back to college,” Driskell said. “He didn’t have a lot to prove from an accolade standpoint, but I do feel that his game had a lot to improve upon.”
Love will have to do that in the pros now.
Starting this weekend, he has another chance to turn motivation into success.
But Driskell for one thinks that extra incentive is not necessary, not for Love.
“He’s a competitive kid who loves to win,” he said. “I don’t think Julian needs that.”
Love is happy his opportunity is coming in New York after playing on the big stage in South Bend, Indiana.
“Right away I thought ‘It’s primetime, big-brand football,’ ” he said of the Giants. “It’s known not just across the country, but it’s an international brand. I was really excited because it’s a fantastic market. It’s passionate and it’s gritty. I wanted to really end up somewhere that has grit to it.
“I’m from the Midwest. I’m from Chicago. And that’s the style of play that I like and that I always had growing up, that Midwest toughness-type ball. And I would love to be in New York to showcase that, too.”