Happiness In Play

West Virginia linebacker Isaiah Bruce beams when discussing the Mountaineer defense this spring, and his joy is fueled by several aspects of coordinator Tony Gibson's tactics.

Bruce enjoys simply getting out on the field and playing, but several parts of the 2014 spring experience appear to be making him even happier on the field. Chief among those are the tactics employed by defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, who clearly has the pulse of the Mountaineer defense in control after serving as an assistant in 2013. His familiarity with all of the players, even though he didn't coach all of them directly, has paid big dividends.

"Coach Gibson as really accepted his role. He's working more with the linebackers, and it's been a huge plus for us to know how he sees us play," Bruce explained. "He's calling a lot of plays that we want to run, and that has us excited to play. It's really fun."

Bruce also sees the meshing of the defensive staff, which includes former college coordinators Tom Bradley and Brian Mitchell, as well as a high school coordinator in Damon Cogdell, as another bonus.

"It's a huge plus," he said of the coordinator experience that runs through the defensive staff. "Everybody has their own insight, and they've been together for the most part. It makes it a lot easier for everyone."

Bruce smiles and is in quick agreement with questions about the benefits of the experience on the staff, but he absolutely beams when discussing the move to get players at one position and leave them there. Injuries and spotty play forced him to play all three linebacker positions in 2013, but that's an experience that he doesn't want to repeat.

"It simplifies everything," he said, jumping in even before the question about playing one position was completed. "I don't have to think nearly as much. Each linebacker has different responsibilities. Going into it, you might be at Sam, but then a few plays later you're at the Will, and you have to change your whole mentality. You say to yourself, 'How you are going at it?' Being at one position and being able to say this is my job, do this job, it allows you to play so much faster."

Those gains in speed and familiarity can mean a lot. Playing at the Sam the spring, Bruce has been more consistent, and he, along with many defensive players, appear to be quicker in making their reads and getting to the ball. In addition to simply shutting down many plays, that also has resulted in some big hits from the defense, as their speed in making the diagnosis and pursuing to the ball puts them in better position to line up on ballcarriers.

Along with the linebackers, the safeties playing in the box (Karl Joseph and K.J. Dillon) are also seeing the benefits of not moving around so much, and the fact that two of them are also big hitters has resulted in some pad-popping during the spring.

"That's what we hope for, and what we are working for," Bruce said of the physical play. "Go downhill, hit them hard, and get ready to hit them again next play. [The offense] has to respect the safeties now, especially when they are in the box. They aren't just two high safeties 15 yards away.

In the end, Bruce finds just about all of the tweaks made to the defensive philosophy to his liking, and the hope is that players who are happier and more comfortable in their roles will produce at a higher level. Bruce, for one, is a believer.

"It's a lot of fun," he said of play this spring. "Everyone is more enthusiastic and excited about it."

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