Sophomore Isaiah Bruce
is now beginning to look like a real linebacker. Whatever he weighed last year … 210, 215 or 220, Bruce today is a much more rock-solid 231 pounds and he looks the part.
“Yeah, I do feel like a linebacker,” the Jacksonville, Fla., resident said recently. “Last year I always felt really small, especially standing by (teammate) Doug Rigg
or something. I feel like I’m getting a little bigger and I give a shout out to the strength staff for helping me.”
It may not seem like that big of an issue, but playing undersized at linebacker can impact everything from his pursuit angles to how he takes on blocks to how effective he is at the end of the year when everybody is worn down.
“It may be like seven or eight pounds from last year but it’s a huge difference,” he said. “I feel like I can take on bigger people a lot better now and not give up so much ground.”
His lack of size also influenced how he chased ball carriers. Again, Bruce explains.
“I felt last year like I was a lot quicker than the linemen so what’s the point in colliding with them when I’m trying to get to the ball? When the ball is in space and I have to take on a block I definitely feel a lot better about doing it now since I’ve put on a lot more weight,” he said.
Bruce played on a Mountaineer defense last year that was littered with freshmen and inexperienced players and it clearly showed. West Virginia ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 in almost every defensive category, but by far the two biggest issues were pass coverage (38 touchdown passes) and pass rush (23 sacks). Those two areas have to improve this fall if WVU wants to field a better defense.
“We’ve got to put more pressure and we have to cover a little bit longer,” Bruce explained. “Everybody has to do their part to defeat the person in front of them to get the job done. But don’t try and defeat everybody by yourself – just do your part.”
Bruce admits he is sometimes guilty of trying to do too much, something defensive coordinator Keith Patterson has been harping on him to get better at.
“When I see the ball I tend to want to get right to it instead of being patient,” said Bruce. “I tend to try and do other people’s jobs sometimes and it ends up getting me out of position. I have to work on my patience a lot better.”
Last season was by no means a lost one for Bruce, who finished second on the team in tackles with 94 while also generating 6 ½ tackles for losses, two interceptions, three pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and a half sack. Just from looking at his stat line across the board you can tell he was one of West Virginia’s most active players - not too bad for an undersized, inexperienced guy.
“He is not close to his ceiling,” admitted Coach Dana Holgorsen. “We don’t know what the ceiling is yet, but he will reach it at some point in his career. This is one of the reasons we were subpar on defense last year. When you play so many young kids you ought to get better.”
Bruce says Patterson has been really coaching him hard to make sure that he reaches his fullest potential.
“He’s pretty hard on me, but every coach I’ve had has been hard on me. They say they are trying to make me better,” said Bruce. “They know my potential and they want me to be the best that I can be. I encourage him to be hard on me and make me do right so I can be a better player.”
Currently Bruce is listed No. 1 on the depth chart at Sam linebacker ahead of senior Doug Rigg
, a pretty good player in his own right, and having Rigg battling it out with Bruce on a daily basis will ensure that the Sam spot will be a productive one on Saturdays.
“(Bruce) is clearly the starter, but Doug Rigg
is pushing him pretty hot and heavy right now,” said Holgorsen. “Guys need to come in here and not be comfortable about having a starting spot. If you do that you are going to get beat out by somebody. I’m not saying Isaiah is doing that, he is a very determined kid, but he needs to keep progressing.”
“There is always room to get better,” he explained. “No matter what you do it’s not good enough. A tackle for no gain could have been a tackle for a loss if you would have played it a little better. I feel with this kind of coaching, and the rest of the coaching that’s going on, they are going to get me to that level where I can play better.”
The same goes for the entire defense. Bruce admits the players now have a much better understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing.
“Some people last year were a little wishy-washy about what we had to do, but we’re getting a lot better at playing together now,” he said.
As for last year’s disappointing defensive performance, Bruce says he rarely thinks about it that much.
“The only thought that possibly comes up is we can’t do what we did last year,” he said. “We’ve just got to get better and just look toward the future and move forward.”
Having a bunch of older, much hungrier players on the field this year will certainly help the cause.
“Since so many players got experience and now know the speed of the game, and how strong the opponents are and everything, we have a really good feel for the game and I know it will make us better,” he said.
We’ll see.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 now available in bookstores. 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.