EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The flexibility and multiple skills Julian Love contributes to the Giants' secondary is perhaps best exemplified by his positioning and performance in the team's first and final games of the 2020 season.
In the season opener against Pittsburgh, Love started and played all 64 defensive snaps and had three solo tackles at safety. Sixteen weeks later, he started at cornerback, missed just one of the 82 defensive plays and had seven tackles (five solo) in the season-ending victory against Dallas.
So, where will Love play in 2021, when he will be a third-year pro in a defensive backfield that is arguably the Giants' deepest position group? Anywhere the team wants him.
"After talking to the coaches, the versatility role for me is kind of what will happen going forward as well," Love said on a Zoom call today. "Kind of being able to play a lot of positions, and then we'll see how the offseason goes. I'm going to keep working and try to really establish myself in a role. But right now, my role is the guy who can get it anywhere for us.
"I think that's kind of what I've always done before college, high school ball and growing up. It's kind of a fun aspect of playing the game."
The drawback to not having a set position is that Love spends more time in some games on the sideline than on the field. He played no more than 50% of the defensive snaps in six games and played only on special teams at Dallas on Oct. 11. In the season's penultimate game, he participated in only 11 defensive plays (16.2%) in Baltimore.
"They told us that's kind of how things might operate," Love said. "One week you might not play at all, one week you might play every snap. I thought it was kind of a joke, like, 'Oh okay, yeah you need to be ready, you have to be flexible,' all that stuff. But for me, it was pretty real. It requires some patience at times. But I knew there was always a plan. That kept me motivated, it kept me going. I was always really on the game plan and really ready to go. The ending, a lot of snaps played, I played the last game, it sent me into the offseason ready to keep working and keep growing."
Love did play in all 16 games, starting six, and was on the field enough to finish fourth on the team with 61 tackles (45 solo). He picked up his second career interception – both in Chicago – and had three passes defensed.
Love made his first pro start at cornerback against Cleveland on Dec. 20, after James Bradberry was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. He played little against the Ravens but replaced Isaac Yiadom at the corner opposite Bradberry on Sunday vs. the Cowboys.
"He's a guy that brings a lot of versatility to us," coach Joe Judge said. "He's just a steady, even-keeled guy. (Against Cleveland), we had a situation come up with the corner position. When we went to Julian and said, 'Hey, you have to play corner this week,' he didn't blink. He said, 'Whatever you need,' and went out there and worked it. I thought he played a solid game for us right there. That just kind of shows his overall value to the defense, his ability to play nickel corner, perimeter corner, or deep field safety. He does a lot of things for us and that's a strength."
Love played cornerback at Notre Dame where, as a junior in 2018, he started all 13 games and was one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is presented to the nation's best defensive back. The Giants selected him in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft and after playing as a reserve early in his rookie season, Love started the season's last five games at strong safety, after Jabrill Peppers suffered a season-ending back injury.
This year, Love started the season's first two games at free safety before veteran Logan Ryan replaced him. He started two games at midseason as an extra safety. When Love next appeared as a starter, against the Browns, it was at corner. He played there against Dallas and helped limited the Cowboys' talented trio of wideouts – Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb – to 133 yards and no touchdowns on 15 catches.
"It was pretty fun," Love said of returning to corner. "Kind of going back to some of the roots I established in college. I enjoyed it.
"Julian Love had to be prepared," Ryan said. "He looked like he was up for the Thorpe Award again, like he was at Notre Dame. It was like his old Notre Dame days again. There was a lot of him."
Ryan is a role model for Love. Prior to joining the Giants, Ryan played seven seasons for New England and Tennessee and started 95 regular-season and postseason games. Every one of them was at cornerback or as an unspecified defensive back. Ryan made his first career start at safety on Sept. 27 against San Francisco.
"Logan Ryan, having him on the team really helps me, football wise and just off the field wise," Love said. "He's a true pro in all he does. It's easy to look at him and say, 'Alright, this is kind of what I want to be. This is the type of player and person I'm striving to get toward, the type of career I'm trying to have.' He was a guy I could always ask any question about, whether it was technical or not. He always had an answer for me. Him and Nate Ebner have really just helped me grow. Those guys, their careers are something you only dream of. Hopefully, I can learn from them going forward."
The Giants have a talented group of returning defensive backs, including Bradberry, Ryan, Peppers, 2020 rookies Xavier McKinney and Darnay Holmes, and Love.
"We have some very talented pieces, and it does nothing but excite us going forward," Love said. "We have a lot of players who have that just base of being ballplayers, and guys who are versatile, guys who can play different types of schemes. I know we're going to use that to the best of our ability. We're going to max out everything we have in the back end because when you look at it, we have kind of a young core. Logan Ryan and James Bradberry are experienced players. We're young but we're very talented. We feel the sky is really the limit for us. I think it's perfect Xavier McKinney finishing the game (with an interception), finishing the season for us. That just shows kind of where our trajectory is, really."