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Meet the unlikely hero in Arizona State’s upset win: Ceejhay French-Love

“Someday this was going to happen.”

NCAA Football: San Diego State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ask junior tight end Ceejhay French-Love if he thought he’d ever make a game winning catch to upset a top-5 college football program.

He’d actually say “yes,” and did so on Tuesday.

Erase the fact that he had been battling a hamstring injury, made just one catch prior to Saturday night all season and was a junior college transfer who didn’t join the team until after summer workouts, playing with his fourth collegiate football team.

Winning 13-7 with two minutes left to play on fourth-and-3 from the Washington 37-yard line, ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins pointed at French-Love, signaling him to motion from the east to the west side of the field. He hiked the ball and heaved a pass directed for Kalen Ballage, as Wilkins was leveled by Washington defender Vita Vea.

The football’s eventful flight began.

It flew just above Ballage’s reach, leaving him hit hard by another ASU receiver. Then, it spun just inches above the helmet of Washington’s JoJo McIntosh, and finally into the hands of Arizona State’s most unpredicted hero on Saturday night: Ceejhay French-Love.

“Most definitely. I thought someday this was going to happen,” French-Love said. “You just go out there and ball. Last play — you've gotta make a play.”

At 6-foot-4, 246 pounds, French-Love graduated from Long Beach Poly in 2015. He had no stars or any major Division I offers after his 10-catch, 240-yard senior season.

He then attended Colorado Mesa, a school of just over 10,000 students and a Division II actually, not-so-bad, 9-2 football team in 2015. French-Love caught two passes for 27 yards and made four tackles, forcing one fumble.

But French-Love explained Grand Junction, Colorado wasn’t his fit: “I felt I can be bigger than that.”

Then, he got his big break — to some extent. He was granted a spot on Auburn in 2016. French-Love had trekked from a Division II football school to a team who had won the national championship six years prior in 2016, but it came with a twist. He injured his hamstring and wasn’t able to play.

French-Love then returned home to Long Beach where he went to East Los Angeles College where it was a perfect fit.He explained his high school offense was very similar ELAC’s, and it showed.

In his monstrous sophomore season, French-Love compiled 403 receiving yards on 25 catches and nine touchdowns. But again, French-Love had no recruiting rating or major Division I offers. He had to wait until after national signing day, and on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017 he signed with Arizona State.

As a late addition to the 2017 signing class, French-Love didn’t join the team until fall camp, so he had to learn the playbook at a rapid pace. Plus, he re-injured his hamstring, putting further odds against him.

“At first it was hard. Everything being thrown [at you], going over all the plays and all that,” French-Love said. “If you look at the bigger picture, it's really not that big. It's just come in here, be ready to play and do your job. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you.”

But his long journey made sense Saturday night on Oct. 14, 2017, proving it against then-No. 5 Washington.

“That play I was just trying to run through the DB (defensive back),” French-Love said. “I knew he was trying to give it to Kalen (Ballage), so trying to block, see if I can get around the edge. When I was blocking, I looked back and saw the ball go over Kalen so I was like 'oh damn.' I stuck my hands out there and caught it.”

The improbable seemed possible, as he ran down the sideline with his battle-worn hamstring to the 7-yard line, setting up three consecutive kneels from Wilkins to win the game, 13-7.

On the field with three other skilled receivers and Ballage, it seemed French-Love wouldn’t be used as anything more than a blocker.

“We had a 1-on-1 individual route with N'Keal Harry, so I'm thinking of throwing it over there,” wide receiver’s coach Rob Likens said.

Senior receiver Jalen Harvey mentioned that he thought the play was designed for him to catch it.

Then, Wilkins stepped in.

“I was throwing it to Ceejhay... We're just throwing all the confusion at you guys so we can run the play again and nobody knows what we were doing,” Wilkins said. “It worked out. The football gods were on our side.”

Wilkins explained moments like these are what every college football player lives for, and utilizing a great tight end will only make running the offense easier.

“I think there's a lot of cases where you have an athletic tight end and normally linebackers are the stiffer guys who really can't get out and run. If we ever motion him out and you see a linebacker go with him then you know you have a 1-on-1 with those two guys. The game is all about matchups,” Wilkins said.

While French-Love might have already secured his career defining moment in just his second career catch at ASU, he faces a future with endless possibility.

French-Love’s first catch as a Sun Devil was against Stanford when Harry threw him a touchdown pass via the Sparky formation. Between his big two plays, he made space for others by blocking, being an extension of the offensive line.

“Blocking wise, a lot. At JUCO, I barely blocked because I was on the outside all the time,” French-Love said. “At [Colorado] Mesa I blocked a lot, but I didn't start that much. I didn't get that much experience.”

Fellow tight end Tommy Hudson praised him for his athleticism.

“His versatility,” Hudson said. “To be able to be in-line, block at the edge and also be out on the perimeter and roll out to the outside. You’ve got to look at all those things. He’s really good.”

Likens loves his physicality, and how using him at tight end as a blocker and receiver will keep Arizona State’s offense unpredictable.

“He's aggressive. Very aggressive and physical,” Likens said. “He gets in a 2-point stance like a wide receiver and does that. And that's huge for what we do on offense because we would like to give a presentation to the defense of all kinds of different types of looks.”