During practice Thursday morning, Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera couldn’t help but crack a joke. How did a second-year pro such as Bryce Love get a “vet day,” reserved for those who have been in the NFL for at least a half-dozen years?

Of course, Rivera knew the answer. The coach and the team’s head athletic trainer, Ryan Vermillion, planned Love’s breather. The 23-year-old running back is returning to contact drills after right knee injuries prevented him from playing his rookie season, and Rivera wanted to give him extra rest ahead of Friday’s day off.

“The biggest thing is him getting back and getting his confidence back,” Rivera said. “It’s been kind of nice to watch him run and get bounced around and for him to absorb it.”

In Love, Washington believes it has a versatile threat. The former Stanford star can run inside, outside and from the shotgun. He can catch and block, too. This skill set puts Love in a good position as running backs jockey for position early in camp. While the team knows what it has in running/receiving threats (J.D. McKissic and Antonio Gibson), as well as early-down thumpers (Adrian Peterson and Peyton Barber), Love could become a reliable option in all situations.

Despite never having taken an NFL snap, Love is probably the closest thing Washington has to a do-it-all back following the release of Derrius Guice this month. It’s tempting to look at the system of offensive coordinator Scott Turner and project for Love a success similar to that of the Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey, the previous Stanford Swiss Army knife to play in this offense. But while Love has studied tape of “C-Mac” and asked his former college teammate about the offense, he pumped the brakes on comparisons.

“My big thing was realizing that there’s only one Christian,” he said. “I’m focused on trying to be the best version of myself.”

Still, it encouraged Rivera to learn that, while the terminology might be different, the read and gap schemes Love used at Stanford are like those in Turner’s system. The team wouldn’t mind if the Stanford parallels continued: In 2017, Love rushed for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns, finishing as the Heisman Trophy runner-up to Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield.

To get back to that level, Love must reacquaint himself with contact — though he said he’s not worried about the first hit he will take in a game — and be ready to step into a larger role. It has been nearly two years since his right knee trouble started in 2018, when Love suffered a torn ACL at the end of an injury-riddled senior season.

He slid to the fourth round of the 2019 draft. Frustrated, Love endured another cleanup surgery but bonded with quarterback Alex Smith, another sidelined teammate, and charted a course for his return. Still, the “tough experience” challenged Love’s personal “10-minute rule,” which is how long he usually allows negative situations to bother him.

“I’m not going to lie: It was a lot of reps at that,” he said. “It was tough. The hardest part was just not being able to do certain things and just kind of being patient with it, letting time take its course.”

Throughout, Love trained in Pensacola, Fla., with personal strength-and-conditioning coach Devin Salley. He slowly felt his stride and footwork improve, and in mid-February, Love finally felt close to 100 percent. He continued to rehab at the team facility, which remained open to him after an initial shutdown amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I was just focused all day, day in and day out,” Love said. “This team took a chance on me, and I wanted to showcase the talent that I have. This has been my dream since I was a kid. It’s a blessing to be able to go out and prepare each day. [The injury] really changes your mind-set.”

Now Love said he feels no limitations in his knee. The new coaching staff and his personal growth have helped this year feel fresh. Love even feels comfortable enough to sneak in the occasional joke about Rivera, whom he liked when he visited Carolina before the 2019 draft.

“For a [University of California] guy, he’s a pretty cool dude,” Love said, referencing Stanford’s biggest rival. When a reporter asked whether he had needled his coach about Cal-Stanford, Love demurred.

“It’s hard to talk junk right now because they’ve got the Axe,” he said, laughing about the trophy awarded to the winner of the rivalry. “But we go back and forth about it.”

Love appreciates how much work it has taken to put himself in this position, and he knows he was lucky to have the time he did to ensure his knee healed right. But now he knows it’s time to show his progress, to prove himself to a coaching staff that didn’t draft him.

“Doing all of the training and things like that is good,” he said. “But stepping inside the lines, it’s a different beast.”

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