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Jamie Vaught: Wildcats feel Love’s impact both on and away from the playing field

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Kentucky is sure glad to have Courtney Love, who has been a productive starter and a team leader.

The 6-1, 242-pound linebacker from Youngstown, Ohio, is playing well this season. Going into Saturday night’s key SEC showdown with South Carolina, the UK senior is among the conference leaders in tackles. He is ranked No. 12 with 17 stops, including six solos, for an average of 8.5, just behind his teammate, Darius West’s 9.0-tackle average, which is good for No. 10 spot.

In Kentucky’s 24-17 season-opening win over Southern Miss, Love topped the club with a career-tying nine tackles and recovered a fumble by the Golden Eagles. During the come-from-behind 27-16 victory against EKU, he came up with eight tackles, including two solos.

UK head coach Mark Stoops praised his performance against the Golden Eagles, saying Love played his best game of his career.

Linebacker Courtney Love has had a major impact on the UK football program since he transferred from Nebraska (Jamie Vaught Photo)

Stoops also praised Love’s growth and development at Kentucky.

“Courtney’s just a mature young man, he always has been,” said Stoops on Monday. “He’s like that here. He’s very solid. You just have to respect him in the way that he’s about his business, the way he lives his life, and we’re truly blessed to have him in this program. He’s doing very well.”

By the way, when Love was one of the nation’s highly-recruited prep stars at Cardinal Mooney, a private Catholic high school in Ohio, the Wildcats weren’t even among his top choices. Listed as one of the country’s top 30 linebackers by several recruiting services, he chose to sign with Nebraska over Florida State, Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, among others.

After two years at Nebraska (including a redshirt year), he arrived at UK, joining his hometown coaches Stoops and tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow, who both graduated from Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio.

This past summer Stoops and the staff thought of him so much that they brought Love to speak at the SEC Media Days for the second straight year. (UK’s other player representatives at the 2017 SEC event were senior QB Stephen Johnson and junior defensive back Mike Edwards.)

And Love discussed his days at Nebraska.

“I wasn’t a leader when I was at Nebraska,” he recalled during the SEC Media Days. “I was within my circle of friends and guys in my classes, but I wasn’t seeing a lot of playing time.”

But, while at Nebraska, Love seemingly did very well, especially off the field. He was active in the community and earned the team’s major leadership award in 2014. In addition, he was named to the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team.

After coming to Lexington, Love immediately became a vocal leader on the Kentucky squad even without seeing any game action. He had to sit out the 2015 season due to NCAA transfer rules.

“I was trying to tell guys to go harder and get to class, but they looked at me funny because I hadn’t played a down yet,” he said. “Some guys did start to buy into that though. We formed a group of guys that really had my back, and I had their back. We helped change the program.

“Last season really speaks for itself as for how the culture has changed (when the 2016 Wildcats finished with a 7-6 mark, including a trip to Jacksonville’s Taxslayer Bowl). Coach Stoops and his staff have done a tremendous job at developing us not only as players, but as young men. There are a lot more opportunities the guys have to do outside of football. Guys don’t have to play football or be a coach. They can be engineers, teachers and things like that. I think Coach Stoops has definitely grooming us into great young men.”

Last year Stoops marveled that Love had made a significant impact on the program before he played his first game for the Wildcats.

“Courtney, he is a special leader,” said Stoops in 2016. “He is a guy that it does come naturally to because he lives it every day. He’s not afraid to be unpopular. He challenges guys the right way. He lives the right way. He’s special. I have seen him for a long time and known him for a long time. That’s documented. You’ve heard me touch on it. But he’s a great kid and a great leader. He’s what you want in the middle of your defense.”

Love — who recently got some national exposure when he first caught the attention of celebrity singer of the same name through Twitter — discussed his first playing season as a Wildcat, both on and off the field. He started in all 13 games and was named a team captain in 12 of them, finishing third on the squad in tackles with 76.

“I think it (the bowl trip) was very rewarding,” he added. “It was something that I wanted to do as a player. When I transferred in, I wanted to come in and have an impact on the team. I think I definitely have so far with my teammates and in the community. It’s been awesome. I’ve done different programs. I’m doing a mentoring program and a lot more related to community service.”

For his efforts, he was named to the SEC Community Service team. Love also spent some time overseas last May when he took a one-week service/education trip to Ethiopia. Love says his journey to Africa has been his favorite experience so far at UK.

That isn’t all. Love excels in the classroom, making the SEC Academic Honor roll last season and he has already graduated with a degree in community and leadership development. The senior is now working on a second degree in communications.

He is also a co-representative on UK football’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). In addition, Love is on the 2017 watch list for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, Wuerffel Trophy and the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team as they all relate to his outstanding work as a citizen.

On Kentucky’s overall program, Love said, “On the field, we’re getting so much better. We can work out more and do things we weren’t able to do when I first came in because we didn’t have the depth or facilities. We have everything we need now. You have to have the best to be the best, and I think we have the very best. We’re just trying to do the best we can.”

While he’d love to play in the NFL, Love has plans outside of football, just in case. His non-NFL dream job is to take over his father’s industrial cleaning company.

Well, it’s pretty safe to say Love will be a future success in whatever he decides to do. And there is no question the Wildcats are happy to have him at Kroger Field and beyond.

* * *

The Kentucky-at-South Carolina matchup on Saturday (SEC Network, 7:30 p.m.) should be a pretty good barometer of where Wildcats stand this season after two consecutive ugly victories.

Even though the Cats have beaten the Gamecocks three straight times, it’s going to be a tough night on the road for UK, which has a couple of standouts — linebacker Jordan Jones and running back Benny Snell — battling injuries this week. If Kentucky wants to make some noise in the SEC East Division race, it has to find more offensive firepower to overcome USC.

Before the season began, I had the Wildcats by 3 in my annual UK football prediction column. Unfortunately, right now after seeing Kentucky’s “blah” performances against Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky with some question marks, I’m now picking USC by 9.

Sorry and let’s hope I’m wrong.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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