Freshman linebacker Isaiah Bruce
may or may not get to play a lot this year – that is yet to be determined – but he does like the direction the defense is going with new co-defensive coordinators Joe Deforest and Keith Patterson now in the fold. Bruce says the new defense they are running has everyone excited.
“We just have a lot of fun on this side of the ball now,” Bruce explained. “It’s fun as far as getting to run around and the coaches are hyped, the players are hyped, and everybody is having a good time while we are doing our job.”
As it sits right now, two weeks before fall training camp, Bruce is listed as West Virginia’s No. 2 sam linebacker behind junior Doug Rigg
. Bruce sat out 2011 as a redshirt after a standout prep career at Providence High in Jacksonville, where he helped Providence to a 10-2 record and berth in the state playoffs where his team lost in the regional finals. Bruce earned Jacksonville Times Union Super 24 honors after compiling 101 tackles and six sacks as an outside linebacker; he also won three city titles in the 300-meter hurdles in track.
That kind of speed and athleticism drew the attention of several schools, including Purdue, Illinois and Western Michigan, but Bruce was attracted to West Virginia because of its aggressive defensive system being used by then-defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.
“At my high school we ran various defenses,” Bruce noted. “We ran the 3-3, we ran the 4-3 and we ran the 5-2. I excelled at the 3-3 a lot, especially when it comes to blitzing, so I was excited to come in and play the 3-3.”
Former offensive line coach Dave Johnson was the man responsible for recruiting Bruce, and when Johnson moved on after the Champs Sports Bowl in 2010, he encouraged Bruce to continue to stick with the Mountaineers.
“He ended up leaving, but even when he left I called him to talk to him and he still said [West Virginia] was definitely the best choice for me because of the way I played,” Bruce recalled. “He said this would be a good fit.”
And it turned out to be an even better fit when DeForest came on board last winter. Bruce said it was sometimes overwhelming for him when he was required to take on 300-pound offensive linemen while playing in last year’s defense.
“My freshman year, trying to fill a gap with a 320-pound lineman, and I came in about 205, it wasn’t really working out for me,” he admitted. “The size difference was just crazy and I wasn’t ready for that.”
Since then, Bruce has added about 20 pounds to his frame and is a much bulkier 226 heading into the fall, but his forte will continue to be chasing down ball carriers from the outside with his outstanding speed.
“I run to the ball,” he said. “That’s the one thing I do that is definitely at the top. I am always at the ball as much as possible. I give constant effort and constant running and as far as I know, they are liking what I am doing.”
DeForest has made it clear to all of his players that his deal is effort and turnovers. He wants guys who fly around to the football and when they get there to try and jar it loose whenever possible. DeForest also doesn’t want his guys’ feet tied up by their brains, particularly when they are being asked to pressure the quarterback.
“The blitz packages I really like and the way that they have them sometimes we will disguise it and sometimes we will not,” Bruce said. “And we have a various amount. It’s not just certain people are going all of the time – everybody from all positions have a shot to go in, so it’s really hard for the line to pick up.”
That one-for-all-all-for-one approach carries over to all 11 positions on the defense. The guys up front are expected to get off of blocks and make plays just like the guys behind them, which has changed the way of some of them are required to play this year.
“[The defensive linemen] are doing a lot of gapping and using angles and it’s easier for us to see instead of having [a specific gap assignment],” Bruce said. “If [the defensive linemen] keep going, you have the opposite gap. You have to be more patient in this system, and it works out a lot better because it eliminates holes.”
The biggest thing Bruce says linebacker coach Keith Patterson preached during the spring was for his linebackers to be patient and read their keys and play off the guys in front of them instead of getting into your gap right away.
Most of the time playing aggressively worked out beautifully for West Virginia, but there were those occasions when the Mountaineers’ aggressive style actually worked against them, especially when teams used a lot of misdirection plays or had great cutback runners.
Patterson still wants his linebackers to react to whatever they see, he just wants them to make sure what they are seeing is actually what they are seeing.
“It’s not so much ‘If it’s a run get downhill’ it’s more ‘If you think it’s a run, make sure it’s a run and notice everything around you that is happening.’ The linemen can help you in this defense,” Bruce said.
Bruce said his teammates are well aware of the challenges they will have trying to slow down some of the best offenses in the country in the Big 12 this fall. And West Virginia is going to see a variety of offenses as well – high-powered passing attacks like Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, power running attacks like Texas, TCU and Kansas State, and a little bit of everything from Oklahoma and Baylor.
Bruce also says what they go up against every day trying to defend Dana Holgorsen’s offense is no walk in the park, either.
“Just going against our offense is not easy, and that is definitely preparing us for what is to come,” he said.
Overall, Bruce is happy with where he’s at right now and is anxious to get out on the field in a couple of weeks to see how much he has improved over the summer.
“The defense is really coming to me and I like the coaches, they are cool, so yeah, I am really liking where I’m at right now,” he said.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History available in bookstores this fall. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.