Coming Attractions: Bruce Irvin, West Virginia’s diamond in the rough

Assessing 2011's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: West Virginia senior defensive end Bruce Irvin.

Typecasting. Irvin has the kind of winding backstory that launches a thousand maudlin profiles every summer — he dropped out of high school in Georgia, shipped out to California for junior college and flirted with both Tennessee and Arizona State before landing in West Virginia — but from a football perspective, the main point is this: When he first showed up in Morgantown last year, his instructions basically amounted to "put your hand on the ground and go."

A year ago when Irvin made his debut as WVU's pass-rushing specialist, he'd never had a lesson and still finished second in the country in sacks.

"I didn't even know all the calls,'' Irvin said. "I'd stand by J.T. [Thomas] during the game and say, 'What's the call?' But now I'm learning. It takes time.''
"We didn't even lift weight in junior college,'' Irvin said. "No weights, no film. We just played.''

Raw as he was, Irvin's talent was evident enough in part-time duty to earn him a second-team All-Big East nod and plenty of attention from NFL scouts, who are sizing him up as an early-round pick at outside linebacker. With seven starters gone from the Big East's best defense, West Virginia will settle for a reliable every-down starter.

Best-Case. Irvin may have been a one-speed, one-trick pony, but no pass rusher in the country was faster or better at getting to the quarterback. Playing only limited snaps, Irvin had at least one sack in eight different games and multiple sacks in five, leaving him one sack behind Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers for the national lead at the end of the season. With his blistering speed and burst off the ball, Irvin can burn tackles around the edge or beat them to the inside when they open up too wide. If he doesn't get to the quarterback, his high motor can still make a disruptive force in pursuit. He draws double teams, too.

With a full season under his belt and an offseason of actual Division I coaching and conditioning, Irvin should have enough understanding of both technique and assignments to hold down a full-time gig.{YSP:MORE}

Worst-Case. Irvin's not only raw: For a defensive end, he's also significantly undersized at 235 pounds, which may be generous. By contrast, the guy he's looking to replace at defensive end, Scooter Berry, was listed at 287 pounds last year and often played more like a block-absorbing, pile-forming defensive tackle in WVU's 3-3-5 scheme than a slasher looking to get into opposing backfields, a major factor in the Mountaineers' dominance against the run.

Irvin, on the other hand, has barely seen the field in non-passing situations — he had twice as many sacks last year (14) as regular tackles (7), and didn't record a tackle for loss outside of the sacks — and could be relegated to the third-down role again if he can't hold up against power attacks that run right at him. As rarely as it happens, if a lineman actually gets his hands on him, Irvin is usually done.

Fun Fact. Irvin spent his first couple years in high school at Stockbridge (Ga.) High before transferring to nearby Stephenson High, which featured four future NFL players in what would have been Irvin's graduating class in 2006: Future Florida defensive end Jermaine Cunningham (New England Patriots), Tulane running back Andre Anderson (Seattle Seahawks) and LSU linebackers Kelvin Sheppard (Buffalo Bills) and Perry Riley (Washington Redskins). There was also future Florida State linebacker Marcus Ball, who was the most hyped of the entire bunch, according to the recruiting rankings. But their coach remembers Irvin as possibly the most talented of all of them, and definitely the most versatile:

"[Irvin] was probably the best athlete in the program, probably the best athlete in the school," Stephenson coach Ron Gartrell says. "I watched him on the football field and saw the things he could do on a basketball court, his strength. A lot of those guys were one-position guys. Bruce could have played anywhere."

In fact, he never played a down for Stephenson, thanks to a combination of academics and legal trouble, and wound up completing his GED the following year. By the time he landed at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California in 2008, Irvin hadn't played organized football in almost five years.

What to expect in the fall. Even if he holds down a full-time role, it's hard to imagine Irvin approaching last year's sack total, if only because 14 sacks is the kind of outlier number that even All-Americans and high draft picks don't hit two years in a row. It's hard to imagine WVU holding its ground as an elite run defense, either, with an anchor who's giving up at least 50 pounds to every lineman he sees. It won't be surprising at all if Irvin's full-time role reverts to part-time again against more conventional, straight-ahead rushing attacks like Maryland, LSU and UConn.

It will be an upset, though, if a little additional seasoning on top of the same raw talent doesn't yield another sack total at least approaching double digits, even against the usual diet of double teams that tends to keep established pass rushers' numbers in check. Irvin is made to terrorize quarterbacks. And if he can learn enough about leverage to hold his ground against 295-pound tackles on a somewhat consistent basis, the end result will probably be worth the trade.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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