Hidden Force

On a veteran-dominated defense, a newcomer is getting the bulk of the preseason attention at West Virginia's first couple of days of football practice. Tales of his prowess in summer work have been spread by many. But like the Loch Ness monster or UFOs, there hasn't been any public direct contact just yet.

The subject of today's tale is, of course, linebacker Bruce Irvin. Originally a defensive end in junior college, Irvin impressed teammates during the summer with great speed and athletic ability. The hope is that he will provide an extra burst for West Virginia's pass rush this year.

Whether he can do that or not remains to be seen – just as the media are waiting for an interview from him. Pursuant to head coach Bill Stewart's camp policy, newcomers aren't made available for interviews until the second week of practice. With next Saturday's interview group apparently limited to preselected players, it could be Aug. 17 before the chance to speak to the man himself is presented. So, in the meantime, we'll have to depend on the comments of defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and some individual and team practice periods to make an assessment.

Over the past few seasons, WVU has tried to take outside linebackers and turn them into rushers on obvious passing downs. In those situations, the Mountaineers have gone to a four-man defensive front and put one of those players on the edge. The success of that move has been limited. While it has generated a handful of sacks (Zac Cooper had 7.5 over his career in that role), WVU hasn't been able to find the guy that can consistently defeat one-on-one blocking, demand double teams and free up other rushers. In Irvin, the Mountaineers hope they have found that force, but there is still a long way to go until that can be considered mission accomplished.

Early on, Irvin has teamed with Will Clarke as ends in the 40 alignment, with Scooter Berry and Julian Miller at tackle. The end spot is a familiar one for Irvin, and one where he should be able to bring his natural speed to bear.

The coaching staff understands that Irvin has physical skills that translate well to the task. Head coach Bill Stewart notes: "There haven't been many like him here," when discussing his natural talent. Casteel fills out the details, adding, "He is an explosive kid. He is strong, physical, and he shows a willingness to learn and fit in with his teammates."

Those who believe that Irvin will soon be duplicating the exploits of Gary Stills and Canute Curtis, however, need to understand there is still a learning curve in front of Irvin. The coaching staff has only seen him in shorts, so evaluating him in a full rush situation right now is like a bride trying to pick a wedding dress by looking at the bolt of cloth that it will be made from.

"We're trying to find out a little bit about Bruce and what he can do at this point because we didn't have him in spring practice," Casteel explained. "Again, it's tough to judge a player in shorts. That's one of our early camp goals – we want to evaluate him and determine what his strengths and weaknesses are, and play to the strengths.

"Obviously, he's going to get an opportunity to get his hand in the dirt and go after the quarterback on third down. Those are the things that we are evaluating right now. He's learning, and we have some things that he has to learn to be able to function. Once we get the pads on and see him fly around, we'll see if he can do the job and highlight what he can do."

While the hopes for Irvin are high, it's not a given that he's going to be racking up Lawrence Taylor sack totals from day one. While Irvin was a defensive end in junior college, there is still the matter of him learning West Virginia's rush schemes, stunts, twists and responsibilities.

"He's just trying to fit in to our twist games and things like that. You can't just take a kid and run him up the field," Casteel said.

Also to be seen is Irvin's effectiveness in pads, against big offensive tackles, double-teaming tight ends, and even cut blocking running backs. In junior college, his speed was simply unmanageable for most of the foes he faced. In the Big East, he won't be able to simply run around blockers. He'll have to use good technique to gain position advantage in order to unleash his quickness, and will have to learn to disengage when blockers do get an initial punch or tie him up.

Early observations indicate that Irvin is good with his hands. He has the ability to slap block attempts away, and has shown that in some brief one-on-one drills. Still doing it in pads is another matter, and that's the next stepping-stone to watch for in his progression.

While the coaching staff wants to bring Irvin along quickly, there's also the matter of information overload to be concerned with. While Irvin's play in the four-man front will be similar to his past experience, learning to play linebacker adds a whole new set of challenges. He's working as an outside linebacker under Casteel, and is getting a crash course in the nuances of pass coverage, reads and positioning. Fortunately, he won't be expected to be an every-down linebacker right off the bat, but the daily grind of mastering a new position while refining one that's familiar to him will be an even bigger obstacle than many other newcomers face.

The next few days of practice will be critical ones for Irvin. West Virginia gets into shells today, then full pads by midweek, and its then when he'll get his first full audition for pass rush specialist. And perhaps, a week or so later, we'll finally get to hear his perspective on it all -- unlike those other beasts and mysteries we're still waiting definitive proof for.

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