MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – For Bruce Irvin, the journey to Morgantown, W.Va., and to the cusp of college football stardom has been about as long and as crooked as a West Virginia country road - one full of detours, potholes and roadblocks.
Some players come to college with spectacular resumes and page-long biographies listing all of their fantastic accomplishments - the ones with all of those stars next to their names that would make even George Patton envious.
And then there are the other guys who have to fight, scratch and claw their way to get to the top. Bruce Irvin is one of those fighters and scratchers that we West Virginians always seem to admire and appreciate.
“I think I’m different than a lot of people,” said Irvin recently during a rare moment of introspection. “I started at the bottom, so I know how it feels to start at the bottom and rise up.”
The bottom for Irvin was living in a two-bedroom apartment with eight other guys while playing junior college ball in California, two thousand miles from his hometown of Atlanta, Ga., and about a million miles away from his dreams.
“We had to sleep on the floor sometimes,” he recalled. “You had creatures living with you sometimes. You get depressed about the money situation. We had only two meals per day. I was out in California by myself with no relatives, and I got depressed a lot of the time.”
Bruce relied on cell phone calls to his family to keep his spirits up whenever the thought of packing up his things and heading back home began to creep into his mind.
“They told me it was temporary and that it would all be worth it in the end,” Irvin said. “Plus, I didn’t want to go back to Atlanta. I couldn’t go back to what I was doing and to the people who wanted to see me fail. I just had my friends and the people I was running with in the back of my mind doing the same things right now, and I couldn’t go back to that.”
There is an old saying about junior college players - they are there for a reason - and whatever the reason was for Bruce, he made the most of his situation. And now through a lot of hard work and dedication he is about ready to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
Irvin heads into his senior year at WVU as one of the premier pass rushers in the country with some pro rating services already labeling him a sure-fire first round draft pick. His coach, Bill Kirelawich, has seen plenty of pro players during his 30-plus-year association with West Virginia, and he believes Bruce is likely headed down that path.
“When I think of Bruce, the guy I think of is the kid from Texas A&M who was the second pick this year (Von Miller),” said Kirelawich. “I see Bruce as being a faster, more physical version of him – and a stronger kid. Bruce has exceptional, exceptional strength; a guy that big shouldn’t be as strong as he is.”
Last year, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel wisely used Irvin mostly in pass rushing situations because Irvin had arrived to campus so late and Casteel didn’t have enough time to teach him how to play the defensive end position on an every-down basis. In reality, despite his freakish physique and off-the-chart athleticism, Bruce has been playing catch up from the moment he went to Mt. San Antonio College. He is still playing catch up at WVU.
“He doesn’t have a great football background,” Kirelawich pointed out. “He wasn’t on a great midget team or a state championship football team in high school – he doesn’t have that type of background. For him to be good he’s got to constantly be learning.”
And Bruce is mature enough to understand that.
“I didn’t know a lot (last year), so they put me in the best situation to succeed and I did,” Irvin said, his 14 sacks leading the team and finishing second in the country in 2010.
Players who can get to the quarterback are highly coveted - even ones who only play on third downs - but Irvin said he never once considered leaving school early to put his name in the NFL draft.
“You only live through college once and for me, to only be here for one year and leave … I don’t think it was worth it for me to go in the third or fourth round to leave this great state and come back and be a high name, and probably one of the top players at my position.”
Kirelawich sees in Irvin the raw ability, the impressive strength and the willingness to work and he sometimes admits that he takes those outstanding attributes for granted.
“In my mind there is a long way to go. I see him every day and I don’t appreciate the incremental improvements he’s making as much as probably if I saw him every three or four days,” Kirelawich said. “I am hoping that being an every down player won’t take away from his effectiveness on third down. If that’s the case then we’ll cut down his run reps.”
Just mention the phrase “every down player” to Irvin and watch his nostrils begin to flare, his eyes start to bulge and his heart rate begin to rise. Despite giving up 40 and sometimes 50 pounds to opposing blockers, Irvin vows that will not be an issue this fall.
“If I’m getting off the ball fast, by the time they come out of their stance what are they going to do?” he explained. “It’s about penetration and leverage. It’s about staying low and getting off the ball quick and that’s my advantage. I just look at all of that and it makes me work harder.”
Actually, Kirelawich is not that concerned about Bruce’s weight (roughly 240 pounds) because he believes Irvin possesses the strength of a much, much larger man.
“This is not weight room strong, but just naturally strong and naturally tough,” Kirelawich noted. “He’s like a big Pacman (Jones). Pacman had that kind of strength for his size.
“I don’t know if it’s the water in Atlanta or what, but I do know those two, although in different packages, they remind me of one another.”
What really impresses Kirelawich about Irvin is the way he comes to work every day with a smile on his face and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get better.
Is it ambition that drives him?
The fear of failure?
Bruce says it mostly comes from his humble roots.
“I started at the bottom and I know how it feels to be there,” he admitted. “Instead of a person who’s always had everything, and they go to the bottom and they don’t know how to react, for me, it’s different because I bust my butt and I did what I said I was going to do and I’m here.”
His coach agrees.
“I think the game is important to him. He wants to be a success,” said Kirelawich. “He wants to be a good football player. He understands what it takes to be a good football player.
“I kind of like everything about him. I like the way he gets along with the other coaches and the kids. I like his demeanor. I like the way he carries himself, and I think he’s a smart guy.”
Irvin is also smart enough to know that he’s now coming so close to realizing all of his dreams. All of those restless nights lying on his apartment floor in California wondering if he was ever going to make it are almost behind him.
“The Lord was with me and I got through it,” he said.
Indeed he did.Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik